Industry news: Writing for Nothing
If some of us are honest, we write because some day we’d like to be paid for it. We’d like to make a fraction of what famous fictional writers make. I don’t need Robin’s Nest on Hawaii. I’d settle for a book signing with a few dozen people and enough money and fame to be the guest of honor at a conference or two.
And it would be nice if someone bought me a beer. (That’s just a general observation, not necessarily related to the fame part.)
Depending on who you listen to, the fame, money, and Robin’s Nest will be harder to come by these days. It’s not because of the supposed meltdown of big publishing, but because of the proliferation of free written content. According to this recent New York Times op-ed piece by essayist Tim Kreider, writers and artists are being besieged by requests for free work and he doesn’t like it one bit.
To his credit, Kreider says at least some of the requests come from journals, websites, or periodicals that don’t have the budgets to offer the money they’d like to–or in some cases, they used to. But Kreider’s bigger point is that we’ve grown accustomed to written material being available for free. (Or, if you’re a writers, getting paid with exposure–something you can’t use to pay the mortgage.)
Think about it. It used to cost a quarter a day to find the news, sports, and weather. And, if you were a baseball fan, you paid your quarter to wait an extra day when your team played out west and the score came in after press time. Now, you can go for free to any of hundreds of websites and find all that out for free. And because of their proliferation, the ad revenue for these sites continues to shrink.
If you make your living writing content–or made your living or wish to in the future–that’s not good news. If you want to make a living writing books, the level of competition will make it harder. If your readers can download a 99 cent backlist title from Amazon, why pay $7.99 for yours, much less $25 for the hardcover.
Then again, this is the same environment in which EL James became far richer than she had any right to expect writing fan fiction based on the work of Stephenie Meyer, who some consider far richer than she had any right to expect. It’s the environment in which Matt Drudge got rich providing no original content. It’s the same environment in which a guy makes a living in New York City by writing a blog about sports uniforms every day.
The business is changing. But it still takes talent, hard work, and luck to win.
What this means to you: Free content can give you exposure if you’re just starting. This blog has survived on free content for almost five years now. Some of the people writing the free content have been paid for their work. Then again, I read a lot of work without paying for it even before the Internet revolution, from the library. And on many occasions, I tried an author out in the library then went back and bought books by the same people. So while the sheer volume of free material is greater than it’s ever been, the concept isn’t new.
More to the point, it’s my hope that some day, some of you–our valued readers–might some day remember me, see my eventual book, and say, hey, I might try buying something from that guy.
I’d also point out that Mr. Kreider is an essayist and cartoonist, which have never been fast-track careers to fame and riches. Instead, being an essayist and cartoonist is something for which you always have to find that next paying gig–something that’s been increasingly difficult for Mr. Kreider. But if Paul Lukas can make money writing about uniforms, it’s entirely possible Mr. Kreider needs to stop fighting against the current business conditions and figure out a way for them to help him.