Re-Envisioning the Writer

I think it is time we reconsidered how we envision the profession of writing. There are dozens of myths about the writing life, and few of them are actually true: Writers rarely achieve fame or success. It is a hard life and can be a heart-breaking one. A career in writing alone will often result in a life of poverty. It is often more about who you now than your skill in wordsmithing that will determine success. The world is full of predators looking for chances to prey on the would-be writer. Most importantly, the writing life is absolutely nothing like a creative writing class would have you believe.

Studying the authors of the past teaches us nothing about the present; most of the great writers of the Victorian era lived in a time when books were one of the only forms of mass entertainment, and the writer was the equivalent of the media superstar. Today there are so many competing forms of media, so many different ways to set forward one’s thoughts that the creative writer has been pressed to the margins.

There’s no use bemoaning this change: books are not everyone’s cup of tea, and recreational reading not for everyone. Nor does the loss of interest in purely textual entertainment represent some grievous decline in cultural values: merely a viable alternative to older media. The greatest danger that has come from it is not to the fabric of our society, but to the creative person who wants to pursue a career in arts.

Writing is no longer the career it used to be; in fact, it is approaching the point where it is no longer really a viable career. This in and of itself is a major point: while many people can and do write, and even have long and celebrated writing vocations, making a sufficient income to survive as a writer is much harder.

Making a living in this case needs to be more than just having food and a roof over one’s head. A writer needs to feel secure in order to create. The writer also needs some amount of disposable income so that they can look for inspiration. A love life is important for any artistic person as well, and romance is not free. There is not just an art and a craft to writing, there is a business to writing, and it is thoroughly neglected in the creative writing and literature courses of our academic culture.

In terms of the traditional publishing routes, it is extremely difficult to make a living. Since the late 90s fewer and fewer multi-book contracts are awarded to writers, creative or otherwise. Those that are tend to be far less lucrative than they used to be. The average writer can expect to make only about $1,000 on his or her first few books; and that is a fee for a task that takes a year or two of writing, months of editing to get it up to the publishing houses’ standards, and often years of hard work and hundreds of dollars in postage.

There is little balance between the various genres of writing and their market pay. Mystery, science fiction, and fantasy pay roughly six cents per word; literary essays and poetry ten to twelve; while fiction magazines like Reader’s Digest can pay one dollar per word. Higher rates usually come with a maximum size to the piece that is proportionately lower. Even at the best rates, the work required to produce publishable literature makes this comes to far less than minimum wage.

Journalism exists in a totally different space than creative writing and has to be discussed in a totally different context, despite the similarity between them.

The publishing houses keep themselves alive on a romance with writing. They maintain a handful of well-paid writers on contracts that they’d never offer new writers under their post-90s business models. They shine a light on writers like Joanne Rowling: they make you imagine that any writer can become a phenomenon with all the fame and wealth that includes with a little work, playing by the rules, and the help of the publishing houses.

The wealth and fame that the world gives to some authors has little to do with their work, or the quality of that work: it is a matter of chance and the unpredictable tastes of the shrinking reading audience. Most writers under the new models managed by the publishing houses will have to repeatedly fight to have a book published with essentially the same contract over and over again until they have a large enough audience to gain competitive agreements.

That’s not to say that there aren’t benefits to the publishing houses. They offer final proofreading, marketing, distribution deals, advertising, and printing services. These are not skills taught to the creative writers. In fact they are often so alien to creative writing that many writers are completely unsuited to them.

Outside of the mainstream publishing houses there are a range of other establishments that pay for writing, but most predatory and usurious:

Vanity presses print a limited number of copies of a book (usually a collection of short stories or poetry), after convincing writers to enter contests or pay processing fees. They quality control is often poor and editing can range from moderate to nonexistent. The book is pretty much just sold to the authors that submitted to it in expensive hardback.

Residual writing websites post articles on almost anything, with only a modicum of quality control. The writers get a fee per view of the page, or they get a cut of the click-through advertising revenue. Both are supported by advertising, and offer the writer no control over the ads placed next to their copy.

The income from residual writing is small; a person who publishes one article a day for several months might start to see some money from it, but even then it only comes to a few dollars a month for the most popular articles. Often a peer rating system determines how often your article comes up to people using a search engine, and so there is an entire community aspect to it that may or may not be appealing, fair, or respect the quality of the article.

Many residual writing sites have a culture in the community that is full of in-groups, promotional schemes, article-reading trades, and aggressive flamers. Many fly directly in the face of the site’s policies, but most are so overwhelmingly popular that they cannot monitor what’s going on in their forums.

In the end, a writer is fortunate if they make a pittance off of an article on a residual revenue website; and certainly won’t make as much as the lowest-end amateur magazine rates for the same piece of writing. It really has no place in the repertoire of a writer who has a healthy respect for the value of heir work.

Self-publishing both circumnavigates the endless waiting, absurd rules, short-lived contracts of the publishing houses, but it requires some initial investment for the writer. It also puts the marketing, consignment deals, editing, advertising, sales, and promotions of the book entirely on the author. While there are plenty of resources available online, no two books can be sold the same way. No creative writing or literature program that I am familiar with covers any element of the modern book-selling industry, and so the writer is forced to play it by ear.

It is hard enough to write and polish a book without the rest of the tasks involved. A creative person wants to create; it is hard to be all things to al people. Selling a book that is self-published is guaranteed to take months of hard work and trial and error before the writer starts seeing any serious successes.

Whichever field of writing one gets into, rejection is a constant. Magazines and publishing houses are so inundated with material that it is almost impossible for even a good piece to be noticed at the professional level; the editors are looking for any excuse to reject a piece so that they can cut back on their workload. The amateur level, and free publication sites, even with low or no pay and lighter workloads are forced to constantly reject good material in order to keep their editors’ heads above water.

This is an indicator of yet a further change that we are seeing in the market: while specialty magazines are on the rise and selling well, literary magazines and general interest magazines are becoming swamped. There are plenty of writers, but not enough profit nor enough readers to warrant creating more magazines to take advantage of the vast resource that these writers represent. The magazines there are can afford to pay authors little-to-nothing for their work because publication itself is so difficult. The literary magazine market threatens to collapse entirely because of it.

Some writers have found other means of using their skills creatively to make a living. Web comics, podcasts, and Web TV all have become media where amateur writers can use their ability, with the help of others, such as artists or videographers, to create media other than written text, in effect branching out to that bigger audience.

And that may be the rub: plain text alone is a rough and encumbered industry. It attracts new blood through glamour around Victorian media stars and a few lucky novelists who are a bundle of exceptions to the rules. It may be that creative writing courses and literature programs can no longer afford to train writers, but rather, mst learn to train people to write as a tool for creating other media.


~ by Brian Rideout on 18/05/2010.

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