Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has a post up where he ruminates on the fate of the author, and of content. Over on Techdirt, Mike Masnick responds.
These two posts provide some necessary backstory, and are definitely worth reading. However, two quotations (one from each post) help frame the issue, and help illustrate some of the misconceptions people have when discussing authorship and the future of publishing, and the future of the writer.
From Scott Adams: "I predict that the profession known as "author" will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others."
From Mike Masnick: "'Best selling author' is a description of a type of author, so, sure, that might go away if people aren't selling books, but I'm not at all convinced the profession of 'author' goes away."
And here, it's necessary to point out that the vast majority of authors, even the ones who are famous and revered, didn't survive on their writing alone. Some didn't survive on their writing at all. Some died thinking they were complete and utter failures. So while a lot of people self-identified as writers, and many of those people also have books in print, many of those same people didn't make enough money from writing alone to pay the bills.
The best selling author, of course, is the exception, and this is where the rise of the large bookstores, combined with the growing unwillingness of major publishers to take what they considered a risk on new writers, contributed to a homogenized experience of literature that was less than compelling. While there were always enough good titles to provide fodder for Oprah's book club, the distribution mechanisms of the major publishers became closed to many writers. Given the ease with which the internet solves issues of distribution, it's surprising that people are surprised that authors are using it.
Which gets us to the current state of the author: I would argue that authors are doing well, and that writers are doing well. Book publishers and book distributors, not so much. The excitement over the iPad and the Kindle are symptoms of the industry's hunger for a device that will allow them to start selling for access to content again. In the coming years, when these devices do not pan out as the panacea for an industry with a dated delivery model, I wonder how closely their arguments around content piracy will mirror those of the record and movie industry.
But authors are doing well. Authorship provides a gateway to credibility, and that can remain true no matter the distribution mechanism. Given the efficiency of the internet at distributing to a large audience, and the power of good search to help an interested audience find a kindred voice, I'm looking forward to what the authors will continue to create.