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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing, Literature, Reading

Pay the Writer, Part 3: Changes in the Writing Industry and How They Affect a Writer’s Economics

As many of you have mentioned in commenting on the last two posts, reading is on the decline, and there is nowhere near the market necessary to support the number of people who would like to make a living from writing. That makes sense. Although humans have a need for stories to help them explain the world in which they live, those stories can now be told in a variety of less time-consuming ways than writing and reading. Media like movies, TV and the internet all do a lot of the work for the viewer too, by providing ready-made characters and settings so they don’t have to imagine them, and very often the point of the story as well (in between the advertising, that is, which is really the point of it all).[1]

Of course electronic media, despite their efficiencies, don’t leave much time for story depth and reflective thought, the lack of which I think tends to leave one susceptible to marketing and other forms of coercion.

All this leads me to wonder if we are evolving beyond the written word, or merely devolving due to the lack of it. But the value judgment doesn’t matter (it should, but it doesn’t), only the fact that we are changing does, and for anyone who hopes to make money somehow via writing, it’s important to have a sense of the direction in which those changes are pointing.

The publishing industry has made more stupid decisions in the last couple of decades than all the other major media combined.

First, they ignored the internet, treating it like a passing fad. That’s bad enough, but when they finally realized online sales and ebooks and self-publishing were eating into their bottom line, how did they respond? By taking it out on the writers, alias their content providers. My friend Dora Badger has an excellent blog in which she occasionally reports on the sad state of publishing contracts, and provides links to other, similar info. It seems clear that many smaller publishers typically can’t afford to pay advances and larger ones are trying to head that way, by denying advances to e-book authors. (Read this blog by John Scalzi for more…a lot more.) They’re also demanding things like rights in perpetuity, rights to subsequent books, and even rights to previous books. And writers, God love ’em, are so desperate to be published, they sign on to this indentured servitude without hesitation.

But unless you’re very very very lucky[2], you will not make a living by writing for a publisher.

The idea that your writing is of no value pervades the writing community. But if we believe that it does have value—monetary value—things can change. Disagree? Try this link about stipends for University of Houston teaching fellows. They held a sit-in to get a long overdue wage increase. They withheld their services and forced the university to act responsibly. Hmm. What would happen if every writer refused to work without pay, if no stories or screenplays or poems were submitted anywhere until publishers acted responsibly? I know, I know, it’s just a fantasy.

But let’s get back to the idea that the market for writing has shrunk to a blip on the media radar. Or has it?

An enterprising young publisher in western Michigan, Doug Lance, realized a few years ago that a big problem with writing was the way it was marketed to its potential customers. In a comment to yet another post about paying writers, he said, “When the reading masses hear literary, they think school. And for them, school was boring.” He has a point. Now I’m not saying literary writing should be advertised like flavored vodka, but it wouldn’t hurt to do something to change the reading public’s impression of literary. A good lit story can be just as entertaining and imaginative as any other genre.[3] But most literary journals, especially the funded university rags, seem happy to appeal to an ever-shrinking circle of readers, mainly the university’s supporters and other writers.

As anyone who follows the field knows, funding for lit mags is drying up at many institutions. Journals like The New England Review, hosted by Middlebury College, have been told to sink or swim; the college won’t pay to keep them afloat much longer. Other industry stalwarts, like Triquarterly and Shenandoah have closed their print operations and just publish online due to budget issues. Could a little outreach, a little bridge building, a little—dare I say it—marketing, improve sales without lessening quality? When subscriptions increase, pay for writers could follow. Another fantasy, I know.

Although such a change in the field is a longshot, and would take perhaps decades to achieve, I also think the current situation, in which most literary journals don’t pay their writers, should not be tolerated. I believe writing for a literary journal is as professional an undertaking as writing for a genre journal, and that it deserves compensation.

And I think that as writers, we have a responsibility to each other to work together to make that change happen.

Pay the Writer.

Next Week: Transitions and Other Decisions—a Manifesto

[1] Just watch—within a few years, publishers will start including third party ads in the front and back pages of their books. After that they’ll insert the ads in the middle of stories. Already you can’t watch a TV show without little ads popping up in the corner of the screen, or a movie without twenty minutes of trailers first.1A Books will cave too.

[2] I almost said talented too, but then I remembered E.L. James and Amanda Hocking.

[3] Yeah, I know, many are not. Maybe those works should be labeled as a separate genre, called Same-Old-Boring-Dysfunctional-Suburban-Relationship Stories.

[1A] And if you show up early, there’s a half hour loop of local advertisements too.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


22 thoughts on “Pay the Writer, Part 3: Changes in the Writing Industry and How They Affect a Writer’s Economics

  1. Readership hasn’t declined by much in the last year, the decline in mmpb sales has leveled out (with ebook sales more than compensating), major publishers are posting large profits, and many independent bookstores are seeing a renaissance. There is no reality-based reason writers shouldn’t be paid, but there are plenty of profit-based ones.

    Posted by blairmacg | May 11, 2013, 1:33 PM
    • Definitely, an important factor is business priorities. Publishing corporations, like any other, look at profit first, customers second and providers last.

      Posted by jpon | May 11, 2013, 6:10 PM
  2. There’s still no confrontation of the supply/demand problem. Marketing takes time & effort & money. It’s a shame that proportionally no one reads as much, but it’s a reality. And thus many writers, myself included, “market” themselves by writing a blog. But for my creative output, namely my stories/essays/brief literary art, I’m content not to get paid. But reviews and interviews, literary journalism, in other words, I would agree. That should be paid for, if not, then I’ll blog. But, with the exception of my self-indulgent posts, I want someone else to publish my literary art.

    The publicity that comes bylines in the small press does have a benefit. The end goal is a book with an advance, and most writers who have toiled and built up bylines get this in some form, usually depressingly low, but that’s all that is out there. But who wouldn’t take a contract from Greywolf, Unbridled, Milkweed, Coffee House, or Dzanc?

    So Joe, you write, “The idea that your writing is of no value pervades the writing community. But if we believe that it does have value—monetary value—things can change. Disagree?” And I disagree in this respect, I believe writing has monetary value and I’ll pay for books and stories to a small degree, but I don’t think things can change. There’s so much out there, and so few people paying for it, that it doesn’t compensate for the editors time and the produciton of print magazines. It’s a quasi-Catch-22 because the only ones reading these mags are writers (with the exception of friends/family). The money comes out of our pockets, so if every writer decides to spend more on lit mags, then lit mags might pay more, but we’re still paying ourselves. The idea that there are untapped markets that are worth seeking is a dream.

    Posted by Caleb Powell | May 11, 2013, 2:59 PM
    • I did say it was a fantasy. But there’s nothing wrong with dreaming a little. It’s where a lot of ideas come from.

      Posted by jpon | May 11, 2013, 6:17 PM
  3. Joe, Porter Anderson has a great post up over at Jane Friedman. Here is the link to Are Your Books’ Covers Sexist: http://janefriedman.com/2013/05/09/writing-on-the-ether-89/

    Anderson covers many problems with the publishing industry in his posts, but this one hit on book covers and men readers. Some in the industry have come to the conclusion that men should be targeted to aquire more readers.

    Anyway, It’s a fun read with an experiment of cover flips. I’d love to get your take on the piece in his comments section.

    As far as finding an answer to the pay problem, I don’t have one. I’ve considered starting a lit mag, a publishing company, but I’ve yet to find the magic formula to make the numbers work. And I can’t start a business I know will lose money.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | May 11, 2013, 3:38 PM
    • It’s a very important part of the conversation and thanks for bringing it up. One of the things I’ve been trying to avoid saying in these posts is that literature genres lean towards a gender divide. Yes, there are plenty of great literary male authors and plenty of great women science fiction and fantasy writers, but I’d bet the percentages lean heavily towards woman in lit and men in sf. I think it’s true for readers, too. As a writer and editor in the literary sector, I can’t help noticing how many publications and contests there are for women only. The situation has convinced some men that it’s time to start journals targeted at men’s perspectives like BULL: Men’s Fiction (although those journals are not men-only submissions, which is an indication of the times we live in).

      Balancing the gender issue in literature is a tough problem, though. Modern culture is all about finding the group you identify with and then closing the doors on all others. Just look at the popularity of demographically centered dating sites that have sprung up in the last year or so. Christian Mingle, BlackPeopleMeet, JDate and Jewish Mingle, Gay Dating (man, I gotta stop watching late-night cable!), and hundreds more that are a socially acceptable form of discrimination. Despite the efforts of a variety of non profit groups dedicated to intergroup cooperation and tolerance, corporate marketing seems aimed at pushing people into categories so they can be more easily targeted for ads.

      Anyway, I liked the link contained in the article (http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/01/its-time-publishing-tries-something-radical-to-entice-readers/), although I was disappointed no solutions were offered there. (Except your comment!) But at least some people are recognizing the problem.

      Posted by jpon | May 11, 2013, 6:54 PM
  4. From Pete Brooks, on Facebook: If the title of this piece means “Writers can’t expect to get paid when everybody with access to the internet is willing to write for free,” I agree. And don’t talk about the quality of the writing; with the rising tide of casual illiteracy in this country, literacy is as quaint and outdated a concept, as, well, paying real writers.”

    Posted by jpon | May 11, 2013, 6:07 PM
  5. It makes me really sad to hear that things are so bad–moreover, I know that you are probably more aware than I am of the actual facts of the case than I am, because you’ve done research on this topic, whereas I have only my gut feeling to rely on, that things are gradually getting worse for writers. And, you are employed by a literary magazine of sorts in addition to writing your own stuff, so if you are having trouble, then what can I expect? I guess we just have to wait for the next wrinkle to appear in the fabric, and hope it’s a good one for a change.

    Posted by shadowoperator | May 11, 2013, 9:33 PM
    • I think it depends on what kind of change one wants to see. I’m reading Reality Hunger, by David Shields (finally), and I’m beginning to see that we will probably never go back to reading and writing the way it used to be. But however it turns out, writers and other creators of art still need to be paid.

      Posted by jpon | May 12, 2013, 2:06 PM
  6. This is beginning to feel like Marxist value exchange.
    It’s also beginning to make me sad.

    Posted by Jon Zech | May 11, 2013, 10:04 PM
  7. Always an education reading your blog. Even if it’s a depressing one. I’ve written a few short stories and articles for the middle grade market, and I’ve been revising and polishing, hoping to query a few magazines. It’s crazy to think that after months of researching, writing, and revisions, I may earn $30 for a submission. If they even respond to my query. I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon.

    Posted by Gwen | May 12, 2013, 10:34 AM
    • Nor will I. But it’s tough to participate in a system that one feels is inherently unfair. Some people rationalize that there’s nothing they can do about it. I certainly did for the last 7 years. Now I am changing. Tune in next week and I’ll discuss how.

      Posted by jpon | May 12, 2013, 2:10 PM
  8. Nice article, but I disagree with your opening statement: while print book readership may be on the decline, electronic readership is on the increase (Marketing Charts aggregates data on various media trends; their latest print book info is here). I believe it will continue to increase as the generations which were raised on electronic media have access to more and better books online. The “Fifty Shades” phenomenon may hint at a discouraging decline in the demand for quality writing, but I do believe that as more literary magazines move into electronic and POD runs, they’ll start to turn around and be in a better position to pay authors.

    Regarding your notes: ads are published in the front and back of some books now; in the ’70s, ads for cigarette companies and those record company “buy ten albums for a penny (and we’ll screw you for years)” promotions were fairly common as centerpieces in mass market paperbacks.

    Posted by badger1 | May 12, 2013, 11:43 PM
    • Ah, good old Columbia House. I think it took me a couple of years to dump them after the 10 albums for a penny.

      Interesting stats. I don’t dispute them, but I’ve seen stats that say 47% of adults did not read a book of either kind last year, and another that says 33% of adults haven’t read a book since high school. Sorry I don’t have the links handy. But at least it’s good to see e-book stats improving. That’s definitely the way the publishing industry will go in the future, although for an oldster like me, nothing is better than closing the laptop for a while and focusing on some pulp. It’s easier on the eyes.

      Posted by jpon | May 13, 2013, 1:00 AM
      • Don’t most of the readers have grey or low-light backgrounds now? Just a thought…

        …and those are sobering numbers, but honestly: what is the percentage of adults who read for fun since the dawn of television anyway? I’m honestly curious. I don’t know if I believe that those numbers are such a downturn from the previous ten years. Some people don’t like to read for fun and others read hobby or business magazines but just don’t like books.

        Posted by badger1 | May 13, 2013, 5:13 AM
      • I don’t even want to think about what the percentages would be if you subtracted the business and self-help books.

        It’s like Doug Lance says, books=school. I wonder if there’s still a way to make the idea of reading more interesting/valuable to readers. I’ve been reading David Shields recently, and I’ve come to realize that in the modern culture of the self, other people’s stories just aren’t that interesting anymore. I’m thinking…

        Posted by jpon | May 13, 2013, 12:13 PM
  9. As much as I “Liked” this post, I’m an optimist and feel there’s plenty for everyone on this planet.

    I don’t believe people aren’t reading any more…their tastes might be changing, their platforms are definitely changing, but I still believe people are still reading. Okay, or at the very least BUYING books, ebooks. Whether not they are READ may be a different story. And as I believe was mentioned above, ebooks sales are rising (again, okay, may not as much as 2010-2012, which was the boom, I believe, but they’re still buying). I agree, writers need to be paid, that’s the bottom line. You can always make another argument, but one should get compensated for their efforts beyond “mere exposure.” Let’s use that same argument on the rags themselves–“we’ll give your magazine exposure” through our distribution, and won’t pay you any advertising dollars, retail dollars, but, hey, we’ll get your magazine READ in B&N, Walmart, and wherever fine magazines are sold!

    Posted by fpdorchak | May 14, 2013, 10:32 AM
    • That’s a pretty good analogy: hey, our ad is in your magazine, which means exposure… or if you give your journal away for free, more people will read it, increasing exposure. But a lot of people still equate free with “not as good” — if they’re charging for it, it must be worth it. I am hoping my writing is worth it. But a new strategy is at play on some book sites, and especially from self-published authors: they advertise 3-4 books by the same author, and give one of them away for free, hoping that people will like the first one and pay to read the others. On at least one site I’ve seen, the strategy seems to work.

      Posted by jpon | May 14, 2013, 12:04 PM
      • Well, there are strategies like that, and since I’ve jumped BACK into the Indie fray, I’m also blogging about what I’ve learned (http://fpdorchak.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/going-indie-what-ive-learned-so-far-part-2/). The strat is to initially offer your new ebook for free for a couple weeks to get reviews (you hope they’re good), to build a buzz, then begin charging. Then, yes, as you publish more books, you can offer a book or two for free. The strategy does seem to work, but I’ll let you know how it goes, since I have 3-4 more books to publish! :-]

        Posted by fpdorchak | May 17, 2013, 9:31 PM
  10. flavored vodka sells — and if you put a picture of a harmonica on it, it’ll sell more

    Catching up on this series of posts — great set, if not, um, sobering

    Posted by Robert Hoffman | June 25, 2013, 5:57 PM

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