The myth of permanent growth ~ or what goes up must come down

The myth of permanent growth ~ or what goes up must come down

Recent news reports on the British economy have been pretty depressing lately. I really don’t find either politics or economics even vaguely interesting but I was struck by various things recently. The concept of growth, for example.

Some years ago, I was asked by an editor at one of the big publishers to put together a proposal for a book about the decline of the Church of England. Short version of this is that after six weeks of research I submitted my proposal and a few weeks after that had it turned down on the grounds that the committee didn’t think there would be enough people interested in buying such a book. That was that; I wasn’t even much disappointed. I’d written very little non-fiction at that point and wasn’t sure I was capable of it. The reason I mention this was because the research I had to do for the proposal involved looking at publicly available information concerning the finances. Even without a financially astute brain I could read the spreadsheets and see there was a fundamental flaw in their projections at this time. With the average age of contributing parishioners rising and the number of younger people joining falling, I could see that the income levels being predicted were fatally flawed. Sooner or later those increasingly elderly people would either pass on, or they would themselves begin cutting back their giving as the economy squeezed their pensions till they squealed. The secure future for Church income was not as secure as the forecasters seemed to think. As the ratio of male/female priests also began to skew heavily to middle-aged women working without a stipend, it became clearer that the church was planning on relying on more priests working without being paid. Since this relieves some of the financial burden on parish giving, I did wonder why this was not mentioned in the reports (perhaps it was and I missed it) but since then, I have continued to wonder why this trend has not been more openly explored.

Growth is an odd thing. Many years ago when I worked on a nature reserve as an education officer one of our visitors with a school spent some time talking with my boss about some software programme he’d been playing with. It basically was intended to map out and chart a graph of growth based on entering certain figures for known and probable growth of certain plants. He used the example of an oak tree. My boss listened patiently and then carefully told him why the programme couldn’t work. Too many variables: oak growth is dependent on issues like rainfall, overall temperature, pests and so on. The teacher said, well, it’s only a rough guide, if you can put the data in it’ll give you a figure for 200 years ahead. I started to walk away at this point because it got quite heated, my boss trying to point out that while you might be able to do this for a long-lived being like a tree, it was impossible to be accurate and also somewhat pointless. “We already know how high an oak tree is likely to grow,” said my boss. “Daisies, then,” said the teacher. “You can put the figures in for daisies and see how tall they’re going to grow!” “But we know that. You don’t get constant growth for 200 years. They grow so tall and no more. It’s in their genes.”

By this point I was too far away to hear.

But the upshot of it is that things have inbuilt lifespans for both life and growth, whether they are oak trees, daisies or economies. Things that boom often go bust just as quickly.

Sustainable growth is what we need to aim at. Growth that is essentially maintaining a healthy level of activity. Not just in our global or national economies but in our personal growth. What can you achieve that you can hope to maintain, come high days, holidays, slumps, sickness and the rest? What things can you aim to achieve that are not one-hit wonders, that once in a lifetime marathon but the brisk walk every day? What can you guarantee to be able to keep at even when the momentum is lost?

Many blogs for example start off well, taper off and then die because the level of commitment needed to keep going demanded too much from the blogger. It’s the same with writing books. There must be a million partially written MS stuck in drawers, real or virtual because their authors simply couldn’t keep up.

And then there’s sales. It’s a bit over 6 months since I first got a book out on Kindle and I have seen sales climb, and that’s wonderful. But just as things can go up, they can also go down. I see plenty of Indie writers whose sales figures make my jaw drop to my chest with amazement, and I take my hat off to anyone who is making real money this way. It’s the dream of most writers to make a living from their writing. Yet even though I’m doing OK, there are two spectres that haunt me. One is that however hard I try and however hard I work I’m extremely unlikely to pen a book that screams best-seller; literary fiction rarely gets into those sorts of lists. The second spectre is that the hard-won growth is going to be destroyed and tail off into nothing. The situation is precarious. Thousands upon thousands of authors have signed up for the Select programme, which means they are able to give their books away free as promotion. I’m not criticising anyone who has chosen this route but today I had confirmation of something I’d been wondering about.

My good friend Andrew commented that a friend of his wife’s had refused to shell out the £3 or so needed to buy his book, on the grounds that they thought they shouldn’t have to pay for e-books at all. There are so many books out there now that are free to download that many folks simply don’t buy now; they wait till the author puts the book on promotion and grab it then. I know money’s too tight to mention, I know we none of us have much dosh right now. But think about it. A book someone has laboured over for months or years is surely worth a few quid. If you’ve read the sample, and liked it, then why turn up your nose because the author is asking for some recompense for their work?

Too many are doing just this. Too many are stuffing their e-readers full of goodies that are being given away by authors who hope that by doing so, the reader will come back and buy their next one.

At present, I have no plans to do this. It is for me counter-intuitive and in terms of my growth, both as a writer and as a person, it’s more like herbicide. But if there is a reader who genuinely cannot afford to buy one of my e-books reading this then contact me and I may well gift you a pdf of it. It’s not that I refuse to give my work away; I’d just prefer to be able to do so to someone who will truly value it.

That way I have a hope of continuing to produce good work and not be overwhelmed by despair. That way I have a chance to create a sustainable pattern of growth for my soul and for my writing without the all-or-nothing grand gesture my diva-ish nature sometimes prompts me to demand.

10 thoughts on “The myth of permanent growth ~ or what goes up must come down

  1. this post made me think of several things. firstly this article:
    which annnoyed me and a couple of other people too. There seemed to be an implication that creative people don’t need to be paid for their work…the comments are worth a scan through “Iucounu” put forward some good points. You may very well have read it!

    Secondly the whole notion of growth, the wider idea of the possibility of growth – economic. continual growth is impossible. But no one wants to even think about it – ultimately it is about death!

    The field of ebooks could be good for smaller scale authors, you might be able to reach a wider audience and therefore be able to charge a little less to recoup the real costs of creating a work.Equally you might manage to reach more people with the printed version too. There is the possibility of growth for an author as they become known to a wider audience. Do writers need to be explicit about the costs involved to their potential customers?
    Turning back to the article mentioned at the top, I think that because there are quite a few things you can get free via the internet people seem to think it should all be free.
    I would rather use my very small disposable income to buy well written and presented books [preferably on paper as I only have a laptop to read ebooks on] than many other things. I value creative output and knowledge from others.

    I found an interesting lecture on copyright and music, both in terms of who can have knowledge, who owns knowledge & creative “things”, who can charge for it etc A very performative lecture too! I think that it is related to this topic.

    My art practice has become more language based, some of the work is just not saleable as an object. But I do attempt to sell some of the paper based “books”. Not sold many. There are not really many suitable places for their sale, I have not attempted online selling – yet. In the past I have sold a fair few copies of a poetry book I self published through a local art and craft shop.

    It’s a discussion that needs to keep going…needs to spread…


  2. Yup. I’m not doing Select. I don’t sell many ebooks and I don’t charge a lot of dosh but I do charge. It’s an energy exchange basically and do
    you really value something you’ve got for free?
    Re the clergy, worrying thought. It seems so much is going this way. Nobody wants to pay journalists any more either…with comment is free (Guardian) and now free book reviews, it is becoming nigh-on impossible to earn a living from words. So it ends up being only people with independent incomes (or who have a well-earning partner) who can afford to be clergy, artists, writers, journos? Pretty depressing.


  3. In my view, the people that think e-books should be free are probably the one’s who have no idea of the blood, sweat and tears that go into writing projects… if they did, maybe they’d change their minds and think these prices should actually be increased…

    By the way, I’ve included you in my list of recipients for the Versatile Blogger Award x


    • I couldn’t agree more. I hear people say, “Oh I’m gonna write a book..” and I say nothing.
      Thanks for the blog award. I confess that while very pleased to be mentioned, I don’t do these things. Just me, but a big thank you!


  4. You say: “Too many are doing just this. Too many are stuffing their e-readers full of goodies that are being given away by authors who hope that by doing so, the reader will come back and buy their next one.”
    Those are not readers, they’re downloaders. Not the returning customers or fans. Real readers will pay. Real readers are sick of freebies (often very bad ones). Real readers don’t download pirated copies.
    We don’t want downloaders, we want readers. And the growth will be slow but steady, trust me! 🙂


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