The End of My Career


Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I have a general and ingrained distaste for what I think of as our “confessional culture.” Which is to say, people very publicly (and often quite loudly) spilling their guts about their fears, misgivings, mistakes, and daily dissatisfactions.1 It’s just not something I’m comfortable with.

Maybe it’s just the New England stoicism of my forebears. My grandmother, dying and in unimaginable pain, once received a friend who also possessed a constellation of health issues. Thinking they could bond over their mutual ailments, the friend proceeded to reel off a string of her own horrors, then waited for my grandmother to reciprocate.

My grandmother, with infinite calm, said, “Sometimes, dear, it’s good not to let people know how much it hurts.”

Then again, I descended from New Englanders, but not WASPs. So maybe it wasn’t hearty Puritan stoicism so much as old-school Catholicism. Confession is between you and your priest (and God, if He’s eavesdropping). If you’ve shaken off that old-time religion, then confession is between you and your therapist. Your spouse. Your best friend. Confession is not something for the Internet and any number of strangers.

But here I am anyway. Sorry, Gramma.

And when I push “Publish” on this piece, I will probably suffer an enormous wave of self-loathing and regret. But so be it.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my confession: I’m a little scared.

No, wait, let’s backtrack. “Scared” is misleading and overly dramatic, but it probably did its job and got you to keep reading.

I’m not so much scared as…concerned. Wary. Because the times they are a-changin’ and the tide it is a-turnin’ and whether I drop the gs on my participles or not, there’s nothing I can do about it.

The last decade or so has seen massive structural changes and disruptions in pretty much every industry you can imagine, but the ones most devastatingly hit are the ones that traffic in the arts. With the exception of something like, say, sculpture (where the value of a work of art lies in its physical presence), most industries that sell art are in the business of selling copies of an original. With the advent of digital, it’s become cheap and easy to make and distribute such copies, to the point that piracy and downward pressure on prices have — perhaps oxymoronically — improved both signal and noise, resulting in changing demands, changing payment, and changing capacity.

In short: Publishing — like most industries — is undergoing tectonic shocks, and the post-tremor landscape doesn’t look promising to me.

I always figured my career would end on my timetable, at a time of my choosing, but I’m not so sure any more.

I recently read Ben Thompson’s piece about differentiation at his Stratechery blog. The nut of it is this: In order to succeed as an artist, you have to be massively differentiated. You have to have something no one else has and it has to be highly desirable. Thompson talks a bit about Taylor Swift’s recent decision to pull her music from Spotify, pointing out that it’s a viable strategy for her because “for her (many) fans, Swift is ‘the one.’ She is, to put it in economic terms, highly differentiated.”

In other words, there is incredibly high demand for what Swift produces (her particular kind of music) and she is the only source for it. Consequently, she can dictate terms. “It’s a tough standard, to be sure,” Thompson admits, “but as a consumer, it’s actually pretty great news. Only the best will succeed.”

Extrapolate out from Taylor Swift to art in general and you can see the trend: The big will get bigger and more popular, but the smaller folks will fade away; they’re simply not in demand enough to be able to dictate viable terms. Thompson says that “only the best will succeed,” but — with no insult intended to Ms. Swift — I think it’s not too difficult to envision a future in which not necessarily the best succeed, but rather the first. Or the loudest. Or the richest.

But hey, let’s stipulate that — despite historical evidence — only the best will succeed. What percentage is “best?” Is it the top 1% of artists? Or 10%? Or 0.1%? Who knows? An interesting abstract question, to be sure, but it’s damn personal because I’m pretty sure I don’t fit into whatever percentage you pick.

If you’re reading this BLog, then it’s because you know who I am. You may know me personally or you may be a reader. In either case, there aren’t very many of you. Not enough to sustain a Taylor Swift-level of differentiation. And that’s what worries me. I wonder what place I will have in the New World to Come. What will my career look like? Or will it just peter out?

Now, at this point, some people will say that I’m writing this not necessarily in a confessional vein, but more as a self-pitying cry for love and attention, that I anticipate the comment thread filling with people proclaiming their adoration for my books: “I love your work, Barry!” “I’ve bought everything you’ve ever written and plan to buy everything you ever write!” “You’re my favorite author!”

Yeah, no. I’ve turned off comments for this post. So there. This really is just me indulging in the very uncharacteristic act of public musing. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know what comes next or where the off-ramp is.

No matter how big a fan of mine you are or no matter how fond of me you may be personally2, you have to admit: If there’s a Taylor Swift of publishing, it ain’t me.

The world is changing. The industry — my industry — is changing. And just because things used to work a certain way and work that way right now, as of this moment, there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so.

Philip Kaplan recently wrote:

Those who made a killing from the record business of yesteryear, should count their lucky stars that it ever happened in the first place.3

Now, once again, like Thompson, Kaplan is talking about the music industry. But the music industry, for purposes of our discussion today, is the canary in the coal mine. As goes music, so too go TV, movies, and books. Music just got there first, is all. But the problems and the opportunities4 of the digital age come to all of us, eventually.

Kaplan continues:

The record business as most people know it, was just a short hundred-year blip in the 40,000 year history of the music business. A stopgap to solve a temporary problem that existed between the invention of sound recording (1890’s), and the invention of the internet (1990’s).

Few other art forms lets artists get rich off copies of their art.

I don’t particularly care about being rich. “Rich,” to me, always seemed like a hell of a hassle. And I know some rich people and they don’t seem much happier than I am. A little less stressed, maybe. But no happier. And the stresses I see in myself that I don’t see in them are most likely masked or replaced by stresses the wealthy have that I can’t imagine.5

What I care about is this: I write a book. You read it. Somewhere in there, there is enough economic alchemy that I can keep a roof over my head and adorable footie pajamas on my daughter. That’s it.

Seems simple, right? And for almost ten years now, it’s worked pretty well for me. But given the herky-jerky of the economy (global, national, and local), as well as the constant disruptions and upheavals wrought by the incursion of the digital into the analog, I fear that this very simple model will not last for long. In fact, I’m convinced that within the next five to ten years, it will be impossible to make a living doing what I’m doing, with the sales I currently command.6

I’m not saying that publishing will end, mind you. I’m saying that the model that has allowed people at my level to make a living in this business will transform enough that we won’t be able to do so any longer. Your major figures will still do quite well. Like Taylor Swift, they are hugely differentiated; their popularity and history of sales will buoy them up through and beyond the transitional disruptions.

Who are these people? You know them, of course. There are signs, I believe, that indicate you will have a career as long as you’d like. You know these signs, even if you’ve never really internalized their meaning.

If your books routinely debut on the bestsellers lists…

If you win one or more of the big awards, the ones that people pay attention to…

If you regularly have your work adapted into movies and/or TV shows…

If any one of these or any combination of them apply to you, the odds are that you will be able to publish books for as long as you choose to do so. And should you choose not to do so, people with money will come to you and show you that money and ask you to please reconsider.

Absolutely none of those criteria apply to me. Hence my wariness, my concern. Because in five to ten years, what the hell am I going to do with myself? I mean, sure, I guess I could put on a tie and dust off my résumé and look for real work, but who’s gonna hire a middle-aged dude who’s been out of the workforce for a decade or two?

And besides — selfishly — I like what I do. I like being creative. I’m good at it. And it’s nice that I can make a living at it. But even though I feel like an old, old man (and Leia makes me feel older every day), the fact of the matter is that — barring sudden illness or a decline in my mental faculties — I probably have another four decades of productive writing time in me.

How much of that will I get to exploit?

So… Movies? TV? Videogames? Comic books? Well, sure. Maybe. But all of those are intensely collaborative efforts, and I’m not the most collaborative guy in the world. (Ask poor Peter Facinelli and Rob DeFranco what it was like to work with me on After the Red Rain. Or ask any of my editors, who no doubt have gnashed their teeth down to the gums after going ten rounds with me over the disposition of a semi-colon.) Plus, there are people already doing those jobs. I can’t just say, “I used to make a living writing novels. Now shove over and give me some of that sweet, sweet TV cash!”

“Self-publish,” people say, as if it solves anything. Well, I tried that. And I’m happy that Unsoul’d is out there in the world, but its sales aren’t anywhere near my sales on my books published by the dreaded “big New York publishers.” If I had to rely on self-publishing income, I’d be eating cat food. The dirty little secret that successful self-publishers won’t tell you is this: Success at self-publishing is just as much a crap-shoot as success in “real” publishing.

This isn’t an indictment of self-publishing. It’s just the facts as they pertain to me. My fan-base is not large enough to support me without the help of a big publisher. And in the New World to Come, I’m not sure that big publishers will continue to help authors of my…stature? Rank? Type? Level? I’m not sure of the right word, but you get my point. As publishers continue to strive for relevance and stability, they will inevitably hew to the Taylor Swifts of the publishing world. Small publishers will continue to thrive through dedicated fans and lower expenses…meaning smaller advances that authors can’t live off of.

Being an author not in the top tier of earners will mean that “writing” is something you do on the side, as an adjunct to your “real job.”

I’m not saying anyone owes me (or those like me) anything at all, up to and including book sales, a reliable income, or eyes on my books. I’m simply saying that I look at the current landscape, I look at the historical trends, and I look at the most obvious future permutations of the industry, and what I see worries me.

My grandmother was right, as she often was: Sometimes, it’s nice not to let people know how much it hurts. Then again, sometimes you take to your keyboard and spill your guts anyway. Because you feel compelled to say something and you figure no one reads your blog anyway and hey, we live in a confessional culture now, like it or lump it, so maybe it’s time to join the crowd.

That’s my confession, Father. Whatta you got?

  1. I am not, for the record, talking about people who are declaiming various social injustices. That’s not the same thing, so please hold off on the “Barry Lyga thinks victims should stay silent!” outrage.
  2. Hi, Mom!
  3. Bold in original.
  4. And make no mistake: The opportunities are legion!
  5. I know, poor rich people, right? But hey — money brings its own set of problems. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
  6. I could be overly optimistic. It might not even be five years. I’m a writer, not a prophet.