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6. Telling Stories or Selling Stories: Writing for Pleasure, Writing for art or Writing to Get Paid?

Sophie Rochester

© 2019 Sophie Rochester, CC BY 4.0

Digital Disruption of Traditional Publishing Models

A YouGov poll1 in 2007 found that ‘more Britons dreamt about becoming an author’ than any other profession in the UK, followed by sports personality, pilot, astronaut and event organiser on the list of most coveted jobs.2 The same poll showed that 10% of Britons aspired to be an author — 1 in 10 of the population in 2007. For some, these statistics might be surprising, especially given that in the same year it was reported that 80% of published authors were earning less than £10,0003 per year and that the majority of published titles sold fewer than 1,000 copies.4 It also demonstrates the many complex reasons why people choose to write — are they writing for pleasure, for art or to get paid?

The year these statistics were gathered, 2007, is significant in that this was the year before Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform launched in the UK, which effectively made it possible for anyone to become an author.5 If 1 in 10 people wants to be a writer, and can be a writer, then this brings us to the thorny question: ‘who should get paid?’

While the traditional publishing industry had a long-established process to effectively filter through the sheer number of submissions, known as the slush pile, the emergence of popular self-publishing platforms has had a huge impact on the writing economy. The traditional process — an author is represented by a literary agent, who sells a title to a publisher, who edits this title and pushes it out to retailers, who in turn disseminate it to readers — has been increasingly disrupted. One of the key responsibilities of traditional publishers to their authors was, and still is, to maximize sales channels, yet here Amazon’s Kindle was offering a publishing platform to anyone who wanted to publish, and a direct sales channel that in 2015 controlled 95% of the UK ebook market.6

Self-Published Marketplace Impacting on Traditional Publishing

One of the first things that self-published writers quickly realized was that to heavily price-promote would increase their chances of visibility in the Amazon store, putting pressure on traditional publishers to drive down the price of their own ebooks. As more and more people chose to self-publish, however, the issues of discoverability became increasingly complex,7 and understanding how to promote oneself as a self-published author fast became a new fixation. Companies responded to help meet this need, such as book discovery start-up, Jellybooks,8 who in 2013 launched a new tool to help authors, publishers and agents to improve the online visibility of their books. A new writing economy began to emerge, designed to help self-published writers better understand how PR, marketing and social media might drive their book sales. All this was happening at a time of year-on-year growth of ebook sales, a collapse in high street bookselling (with Borders and BOOKS etc. closing) and a buy-out of Waterstones that created a major wobble for traditional publishers.

Despite this turbulence, the attraction of being published ‘traditionally’ showed no signs of waning. Major self-publishing stars, such as Amanda Hocking, chose to move their titles to traditional publishing houses, with an explanation that they just wanted to get on with writing, without having to think about the editing, marketing and selling of books.

Just the editing process alone has been a source of deep frustration, because although [Amanda] has employed own freelance editors and invited her readers to alert her to spelling and grammatical errors, she thinks her eBooks are riddled with mistakes. ‘It drove me nuts, because I tried really hard to get things right and I just couldn’t. It’s exhausting, and hard to do. And it starts to wear on you emotionally. I know that sounds weird and whiny, but it’s true.’9

These moves represented an interesting shift for traditional publishers, perhaps putting them into the position of ‘publishing services provider’ as opposed to ‘curator’.

These changes marked a new era for traditional publishing, with a focus on writers having to demonstrate the existence of an audience for their work in order to get published. An example of this was the publishing trend surrounding the commissioning of YouTube stars such as Zoella, to publish what are effectively ‘books as merchandise’ for their fans. It could be argued, however, that for the more commercial imprints within traditional publishing houses this model was long established, and that self-publishing and social media stars had merely added themselves to the mix of the well-established celebrity memoir and television tie-in.

The Squeeze of the Mid-List

The so-called ‘democratisation’ of publishing has created opportunities for new and emerging writers, but has simultaneously rocked traditional publishing’s delicate ecosystem, with ‘mid-list’ writers reportedly suffering the most.10

Reading and writing have, without a doubt, changed significantly in the past decade; with new writing platforms and social media playing a big part in the way readers consume and share books, and even in the creative process of writing. Today, readers and writers are gathering in online communities and could be construed as being the new gatekeepers of fiction.

Faced with a dizzying array of choices and receiving little by way of expert help in making selections, book buyers today are deciding to play it safe, opting to join either the ever-larger audiences for blockbusters or the minuscule readerships of a vast range of specialist titles. In this bifurcation, the mid-list, publishing’s experimental laboratory, is being abandoned.11

Some of the UK’s best-known writers, including Julian Barnes and Hilary Mantel, wrote for many years before achieving bestseller status. Hilary Mantel wrote her first novel in 1985, but it was her thirteenth book Wolf Hall that went on to win The Man Booker Prize in 2009, some twenty-four years later.

Traditionally publishers would nurture a writer’s career over this long period, before a ‘break-out’ work of fiction. However, according to some author organisations such as The Book Society, commercial pressures on publishers exacerbated by the struggles of high street retailers and the impact of digital have compromised this nurturing process. Nicola Solomon, chief executive at the Society of Authors, said:

Publishers are not investing in authors in a way they would have once, to see if they will take off after their fourth or fifth book, if their first or second were steady, but didn’t go through [to a huge readership].12

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2011, writer Ewan Morrison predicted a bleak future for professional writers in light of the digital disruption of the publishing industry. In a summary of his speech for The Guardian, Morrison stated:

The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.13

In 2012, to help us understand the digital needs of writers, The Writing Platform launched an online survey and invited writers to contribute. We had over 500 respondents: 67% female, 33% male; 45% between the ages of 35 and 55; 75% of respondents live in the UK, 9% in the US, 5% in Australia, 3% in Canada, and the rest spread around the world, including the Philippines, Lithuania and Venezuela. 35% of these were aspiring writers; 33% traditionally published writers; 15% both traditionally and self-published; and 9% self-published. Out of this number, only 20% agreed that the statement that most accurately described their aspirations as a writer was, ‘I want to make money from my writing’. By far the greatest number of people agreed with the statement ‘I want my work to be read by lots of people’ (39%).14

‘Quality’ and Critical Acclaim

For some literary writers, critical acclaim can hold equal importance to making money from their writing. However, one of the other casualties of digital disruption has been the cutting back, and sometimes total elimination, of the books review pages by the national newspapers.

In 2010, national literary editors were already admitting that review space had become ‘an established novelist monopoly’,15 and publicists learnt quickly that it was becoming increasingly difficult to promote fiction from emerging novelists. As review space began to shrink, so too did the opportunities to break out or develop the careers of new writers.

Like other content industries, the global book publishing industry started to focus its marketing efforts on online searches (using search engine optimisation or SEO) and in the fight for online discoverability, understanding the use of ‘keywords’ to link readers with writers became imperative. While this might work for the discovery of non-fiction titles or genre fiction, for the more mercurial literary fiction category this poses a problem.

So are we in the midst of a shift in power from the traditional gatekeepers of fiction to the mass of readers growing more verbal and powerful online every day? And are there any advantages to this shift?

China and Online Reader/Writer Communities

One significant change is a new kind of reader/writer ‘prosumer’16 emerging as a dominant creative force in publishing, most readily demonstrated by platforms such as Wattpad, which now boasts a total monthly audience of over 45 million,17 who regularly read, vote, and comment on new writing. The Wattpad community collectively spends 15 billion minutes each month using Wattpad.

While some might argue that this shift is having an impact on how ‘quality’ writing is defined in the digital age — with the power of popularity and monetisation of writing apparently usurping ‘craft and quality’18  — there are others who argue that traditional publishers are being forced to widen their nets for writers, taking notice of genres that have long been ignored or dismissed.

Wattpad’s business model followed closely the successful ‘online literature’ sites of China. Online Literature emerged in China in 1990 and it has grown rapidly since then, with companies like Cloudary (sometimes called Shanda or Shengda) leading the way. Readers in China now regularly access Online Literature, predominantly long-form serialised fiction, on their smartphones and tablets.

In the past ten years, the Online Literature sites have grown substantially, and this publishing system operates independently of the state-run publishers. The China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) reported that China had 293 million Online Literature readers in 2014, an increase of 7.1% year on year.19 The fast development was attributed to the rise in mobile phone use in China, and the platforms being widely supported by mobile companies.20

Like traditional publishers in the West acquiring rights for the new YouTube superstars and bestselling self-published writers, Chinese publishers started to take notice of the writers establishing themselves through online literature platforms. While traditional Chinese publishers might dismiss the quality of fiction being published on online literature sites, the lines between the traditional Chinese publishing industry and its grassroots online literature counterpart appear to be blurring, and the ways in which ‘quality’ is judged is also in transition. Dr Xiang Ren explains:

I don’t agree that the quality of content, particularly online user-generated literature should be assessed by traditional criteria. They have value because millions of readers enjoy reading them.21

So who does define ‘quality’ of writing in the digital age — the traditional gatekeepers or the readers?


One of the longstanding criticisms of traditional gatekeepers in publishing is that, for too long, they have failed to diversify the writers who are commissioned. The recent report, Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place, commissioned by Arts Council England and conducted by Spread the Word, established that an ‘old mono-culture still prevails’ in publishing, despite efforts to make the industry more diverse. In relation to digital, the report stated that,

Certainly from a customer point of view, the digital revolution has made it easier for readers to find exactly what they’re looking for; a boon for readers searching for the BAME penned titles they can’t find elsewhere. Speaking in Beige magazine, Rebecca Idris, winner of the 2013 Polari First Book Prize for her self-published ‘gaysian’ novel The Sitar, said: ‘For niche books like mine, about sub-cultures, it’s perfect because anybody who’s reading around your book’s subject just needs to type in a few keywords and they’ll get it immediately, so your audience is perfectly targeted’.22

If digital is able to offer new routes to publication for a wider group of writers then this is a perhaps a welcome side effect of disruption to the ecosystem.

A new ‘publisher’ can look very different today — it could be a literary agent or a crowd-funded community such as Unbound. Literary agents are able to operate as publishers, publishers can reach readers directly and, crucially, writers are now able to publish directly to publishing platforms such as KDP.

The economics of being a writer have mostly been considered in the context of the ebook or print book market. The digital revolution, however, has created, and will continue to create new opportunities for writers. The emergence of content marketing as a new emphasis for brands is just one interesting example, with well-known and established literary writers such as William Boyd writing for Land Rover, Neil Gaiman writing for Blackberry and Faye Weldon writing for Bulgari. A new generation of storytelling platforms, from videogames to VR experiences, are creating writing commissions for traditionally published authors.

The most interesting twenty-first-century publishers will be those looking to embrace the best of new technology and see how it can grow its audiences for writing across all platforms. Similarly, the writers who will perhaps profit most from the digital revolution are those that quickly identify and exploit this range of new opportunities.

Works Cited

(10 October 2013) ‘Mo Yan: Network Literature is a Part of Literature’, Culture & Influence,

(2013) Chinese Network Literature Marketing Research Annual Report.

Atwell, Georgina (8 October 2014) ‘Myths of discoverability’, The Bookseller,

Crace, Jim (22 August 2007) ‘Don’t Give Up the Day Job’, The Guardian, thedayjob

Hesmondhalgh, David (2013) The Cultural Industries (London: Sage Publications).

Kean, Danuta (2016) ‘Digital or Be Damned?’, in Danuta Kean and Mel Larson (eds.), Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place (London: Spread the Word), p. 17,

Lea, Richard (15 January 2016) ‘Earnings Soar for UK’s Bestselling Authors as Wealth Gap Widens in Books Industry’, The Guardian,

Mantel, Hilary (2010) Wolf Hall (London: Fourth Estate).

Pauli, Michelle (21 August 2007) ‘Writing Tops Poll of Ideal Jobs’, The Guardian,

Pilkington, Ed (12 January 2012) ‘Amanda Hocking, the Writer who Made Millions by Self-Publishing Online’, The Guardian,

Prodger, Michael (2010) Personal interview/statement made in support of the Fiction Uncovered promotion.

Rankin, Jennifer (13 January 2014) ‘Publish and Be Branded: The New Threat to Literature’s Laboratory‘, The Guardian,

Ritzer, George and Nathan Jurgenson (2010) ‘Production, Consumption, Prosumption: The Nature of Capitalism in the Age of the Digital “Prosumer”’, Journal of Consumer Culture 10.1, 13–36.

Robinson, Colin (4 January 2014) ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Reader’, New York Times,

Rochester, Sophie and Xin Lin (2015) The Publishing Landscape in China: New and Emerging Opportunities for British Writers (London: Nesta),

Sennett, Richard (2008) The Craftsman (London: Penguin Allen Lane).

The Writing Platform Team (2013) ‘The Writing Platform Survey Results’, The Writing Platform 8 February,

Tivnan, Tom (15 January 2016) ‘Review of 2015: Donaldson is Top Author, Extends Record Run’, The Bookseller,

Waldfogel, Joel (2017) ‘How Digitization Has Created a Golden Age of Music, Movies, Books, and Television’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 31.3, 195–214.

Wattpad (2016) ‘About’,

YouGov ([n.d.]) ‘Panel Methodology’,

1 The YouGov poll questioned 2,461 people across Britain. YouGov conducts its public opinion surveys online using Active Sampling. Panel members are recruited from a host of different sources, including via standard advertising, and strategic partnerships with a broad range of websites. See:

2 Michelle Pauli, ‘Writing Tops Poll of Ideal Jobs’, The Guardian, 21 August 2017,

3 Hesmondhalgh highlights that in the emerging forms of digital distribution there are small numbers of big hits and, if anything, the reliance on hits is becoming more entrenched. See David Hesmondhalgh, The Cultural Industries (London: Sage Publications, 2013), p. 330.

4 John Crace, ‘Don’t Give Up the Day Job’, The Guardian, 22 August 2007,

5 ‘Since 2007, it has been possible for authors to create manuscripts, upload them to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform (or one of a number of others, such as Lulu) and then achieve multinational distribution without gatekeeping agents, editors, or publishers.’ See Joel Waldfogel, ‘How Digitization Has Created a Golden Age of Music, Movies, Books, and Television’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31.3 (2017), 195–214 (p. 199).

6 Michael Kozlowski, ‘Amazon Controls 95% of the Ebook Market’, Good eReader, 27 March 2015,

7 Georgina Atwell, ‘Myths of Discoverability’, The Bookseller, 8 October 2014,

9 Ed Pilkington, ‘Amanda Hocking, the Writer who Made Millions by Self-Publishing Online’, The Guardian, 12 January 2012,

10 Figures from Nielsen BookScan in 2015 revealed that the gap between publishing’s rich and poor continues to widen and the top 1% of authors account for nearly a third of all UK book sales.

The Bookseller estimated that the UK print sales, reported by Nielsen, came from 55,000 authors, which means that the 50 writers who accounted for 13% of the £1.49bn in sales represent less than 0.1%. The top 500 — or top 1% — of authors clocked up 32.8% of sales, while the top 10% amassed 57%. The £199m netted by the top 50 authors represents a 21% increase on 2014, compared to a 6.6% rise for the UK print market as a whole. See Richard Lea, ‘Earnings Soar for UK’s Bestselling Authors as Wealth Gap Widens in Books Industry’, The Guardian, 15 January 2016,

11 Colin Robinson, ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Reader’, New York Times, 4 January 2014,

12 Jennifer Rankin, ‘Publish and Be Branded: The New Threat to Literature’s Laboratory’, The Guardian, 13 January 2014,

13 Ewan Morrison, ‘Are Books Dead, and Can Authors Survive?’, The Guardian, 22 August 2011,

14 The Writing Platform Team, ‘The Writing Platform Survey Results’, The Writing Platform, 8 February 2013,

15 Michael Prodger (previously Literary Editor of The Telegraph), personal interview/statement made in support of the Fiction Uncovered promotion, 2010.

16 Ritzer and Jurgenson highlight that on Web 2.0 there has been a dramatic explosion in prosumption — in which the consumer is also a producer — namely on the blogosphere and social networking communities. See George Ritzer and Nathan Jurgenson, ‘Production, Consumption, Prosumption: The Nature of Capitalism in the Age of the Digital “Prosumer”’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 10.1 (2010), 13–36 (p. 19).

17 Wattpad, ‘About’,

18 Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (London: Penguin Allen Lane, 2008).

19 N.A., ‘Mo Yan: Network Literature Is a Part of Literature’, Culture & Influence, 10 October 2013,

20 Chinese Network Literature Marketing Research Annual Report, 2013.

21 Qtd. in Sophie Rochester and Xin Lin, The Publishing Landscape in China: New and Emerging Opportunities for British Writers (London: Nesta, 2015), p. 18,

22 Danuta Kean, ‘Digital or Be Damned?’, in Danuta Kean and Mel Larson (eds.), Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place (London: Spread the Word, 2016), p. 17,