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