Why entitlement is bad for writers

 So, if you’re even remotely following what’s been going on in the publishing world, you will have heard of the Amazon/Hachette battle. Lines have been drawn, sides have been picked and bloggers have been at war. But so have writers.

And certainly everyone is entitled to their own opinion on the matter. What I like the least, however, is the way authors are being pitted against each other – whether because they wrote some kind of open letter, signed a petition or said something on Twitter.

And the thing is, authors are nearly always getting pitted against each other.  Sometimes, we even do it ourselves.

Case in point being this old piece  by writer Lynn Shepherd, which I saw a while back, but which came to mind today when I was discussing the publishing war with a friend.

In a nutshell, Shepherd saying that JK Rowling has had her time in the sun and that she should just move over and stop taking up shelf-space so other writers can have a go. Now, the writer’s opinion of Rowling’s work is completely irrelevant here. She’s allowed to like or dislike it for whatever reasons and that is completely her business. What I find so striking is the author-vs-author standpoint.

There’s a lot wrong here, like assuming that writers are in some strange battle over readership which will never, ever cross over. So if they read someone else, that’s it. They’re set for life and no other author has a chance. Obviously, that’s blatantly silly. Readers cross over, across writers and across genres. We’re not staking out territory over here.

The patently ridiculous thing is that this article implies that once a writer has reached a certain level of success, they’ve got what they came for and should throw in the towel because it’s just rude to hog all that success.* This is a bit like when you’re in the university library, trying to print out your thesis half an hour before it’s due,** and not only is there a huge queue to the computer clusters, but the people at the computers are messing about on Facebook in the middle of deadline season. Just downright thoughtless.

Except that writing isn’t like that at all.

By that logic not just Rowling, but King, Steel, Hobb, Pratchett, Gaiman and everyone else who’s managed to earn a respectable income and a strong fan following through their writing should just quit. Right now. This instant. Put down those pens and step away from the keyboards.

And this just reveals an underlying attitude of entitlement. Rowling really doesn’t owe it to anyone to do anything with her career one way or the other. She can write what she wants, as much of it as she wants, and under any pen name that she likes. Why on earth Shepherd makes it sound like Rowling producing a sequel to her mystery series is an act of spite against other writers is beyond me. Physical shelf-space is determined by success and the connection a writer or publisher has with a book shop, and their place in the alphabet.

But Shepherd’s article casts Rowling as that one sibling who’s licked all the biscuits so that no one else can have any.

Except that writing isn’t like that either.

The way bookshop shelf-space works, even if Rowling and all the rest ‘tactfully’ stopped publishing things, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the bookshop would suddenly change tack, order a million copies of the ‘obviously more deserving’ writer’s work, and place them all at eye-level in the best part of the shop. There’s rather a lot more involved when it comes to getting shelf-space or winning over readers.

And this is the bit where writing isn’t the library print queue. Sure, you might not get the table at the front of the bookshop, or front-page website listings. But that doesn’t mean it’s because other writers are getting in your way. As a writer you’re only trying to produce the best thing you can – whether that resonates with readers or not has nothing to do what someone else has published. Whether you survive or thrive is not affected by how well the person next to you is doing. It’s not like there’s only that one spot in the sun for the hallowed writer who does well, and no one else is allowed. Readers read, and if they’re buying someone else that doesn’t mean they’re not going to buy you.  In fact, a writer drawing the spotlight to a particular genre is a good thing for everyone else in that genre.

To my mind, it’s this sort of grumbling that makes it easier for writers to get caught up in imaginary conflicts instead of banding together to make the industry better for themselves. I have heard a lot about both sides of the Hachette/Amazon argument, and it’s certainly valid for writers to speak their mind about what’s going on. But since it’s not the writers (Team Amazon or Team Hachette) who are at the heart of the quarrel, perhaps aiming barbs at each other isn’t really the point. Sides have been picked for moral reasons, but also for financial and contractual ones – and whatever Amazon and Hachette may be doing, it doesn’t make one writer morally ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another.

That said, it would be rather nice if they resolved it soon: that way, we can all have something else to talk about.




*The second thing that I just couldn’t fathom is the patronising suggestion that Rowling should just continue with children’s lit, if she must continue at all – I imagine this is because children’s/YA lit is clearly so much less worthy than adult lit. No one cares what happens over there. Which is silly too, but genre snobbery is very much a discussion for a different post.

**This has almost certainly never happened to me. Ever. Erm.