I am a writer. I write. Not because I get paid to do so (I do, sometimes), not because I get social mileage out of it (I do somewhat), but because words are all I have and all I have ever had. My limited skill with words is pretty much my sole talent yes, but it is also my path and my calling. I can’t not write. Words are what I breathe in and breathe out to live.
But I also realize that it is perhaps easier to find employment as an engineer than it is as a writer. And I am not even making a distinction between arts and sciences. Writing seems to have ended up at the bottom of the heap as far as creative talents are concerned. We have, generally speaking, gotten into the habit of devaluing authorship and those in the business of creating cultural objects — books, art, photography, cinema and suchlike. Some might balk at my use of that repugnant word “business” but that, at least in part, is where this whole mess stems from. I detailed these points in my letter dated August 18.
All creative output on the web is copiable, and while images, music, and video are all routinely accessed and passed off as someone else’s work, text is by far the most readily copiable media.
This is starting to sound like a whine. So I will boil this down to my core concern. Am I , as a writer, being presumptuous when I think my writing is worth money? Should I instead resign to market conditions that dictate that text that is freely available — to read, to copy, and to circulate— is more in my long-term interest as it gets me exposure and earns me more readers than I would have had access to if I had insisted on getting paid first? After all, a mere fifty years ago, there were writers vastly more talented than me who would have absolutely killed for the kind of exposure I have today.
I have run more than one successful blog / website, written hundreds of essays and short stories which have been read by tens of thousands (if not more) of people over nearly a decade. I have even “broken into” the world of the printed book with comic books and graphic novels. In all, about ten percent of my so-called literary output has earned me money. The rest of my work has earned me other things — fame (for what it’s worth), relationships, and a name for myself that gets people at least a little excited when I announce on Facebook that I am working on something.
These are, admittedly, things money can’t buy. Well it can, but using only money for such purposes is not very effective. Nothing beats interpersonal interaction. More on that some other time.
In response to my letter of August 18, one reader wrote back saying writers need to snap out of the sense of entitlement that programmers left behind ages ago. Programmers, he said, understand that software doesn’t make money. I wonder if writers too should accept the fact that writing doesn’t make money. That maybe the only way our words can make us money is if we set them free.
By this logic, I am perhaps one of the luckier ones. I have set my words free and I have made some money. There are doubtless more conservative writers out there who have resisted the call of the free web and consequently not “broken out” (so to speak). At the same time, there are writers who have used the web only as a tertiary function — maintaining a social media presence, communicating with readers — and have relied on traditional publishing to make money. So is there an advantage associated with actually publishing your writing on the web?
At the end of the day, the ten percent rule applies no matter which publishing route you take. When you publish online, content platforms like Blogger, WordPress, Medium, and Facebook get richer and make money by riding atop your hard work. When you publish offline, your publisher gets richer the same way. True, these middlemen do provide some very essential services that go a long way in making you successful and financially better off, but the trade-off, as far as the writer is concerned, is the same.
Words are great. Words are beautiful and powerful and world-changing. But they, by themselves, are not worth money.