The New Writing Age
Full disclosure: I've thrown my lot in with Scalzi, Doctorow, and Konrath, all of whom have been well-treated by the Internet. So, while I promise not to be Pollyanna about it, my feeling is that it's never been a better time to be a writer. Because of the Internet, we have more opportunity to share our stories: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, traditional blogs, ezines, ebooks, and yes, print. Even personal blogs can reach thousands of people.
This is not to say that I think everyone who thinks they can write decent fiction will make a living at it. But since when has that been true? In general, the cream rises to the top, no matter the venue. There are more books in print, more stories available, and more online magazines hanging out shingles. Logic claims there's room for more cream than ever before. But writers must adapt if we're going to function in a publishing industry blown wide open. Let's take a brief look at why:
It makes increasingly less sense to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves - the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public - has stopped being a problem. Clay Shirky, Adjunct Professor, NYU.
Sounds extreme, especially when ebooks account for about 2% of total sales. But a few years ago the music industry went through a similar revolution as technology virtually erased the boundaries (read: distributors) between artists and fans. Like publishing houses, record labels became part of big conglomerates. The labels' job is to get CDs into stores. It's a task growing more daunting by the day, since record sales have dropped steadily over the past several years with the advent of ITunes and other estributors, including artists themselves. Technology provided unexpected sources of competition. One big mistake revealed by hindsight - which even music execs admit to - is that the industry dug its heels in the past, thereby alienating their own market base.
A publisher's current main job is to get content, in paper form, into the hands of readers. So what happens when technology erases that need? The codex, invented over 2000 years ago, is already becoming a clunky, expensive method to transfer content compared to digital transfer. This is not to say that I'm disavowing paper books. I have an extensive library myself. But I also have a large CD library, which I listen to primarily on my Ipod. I'd be kidding myself if I don't realize that at some point I'll give up CDs for digital altogether.
Unfortunately, some publishers are ignoring the lessons learned by suffering music execs. Such obstinacy won't last long, though, and early adoption lies within the writing community. With the rapid advent of new technology, consumers are not reliant on publishers for quality content any longer. Newspapers are a prime example. When readers began to find news easily online, especially news slanted to their politics and beliefs, they gave up print newspapers.
Most of the people lamenting the death of the dead tree medium are the people reliant on said medium. Most readers don't care. They want their news concise and up to the minute, and online news outlets give it to them. It happened with television and now it's happening with dotcom news sites. Readers gave up talking about where they get their news, but they talk a lot about the news, around the world, real-time. And an interesting thing happened, a little different than with prior adoptions. As the medium dropped from the discussion in lieu of the content, technology enabled the written word to draw close to natural conversation, making content more physically and intellectually accessible than ever before. (I'll touch more on conversation in a moment.)
Shirky is ignoring the bigger issues inside publishing, though. Distribution is not the only thing publishers do. They also edit content. I would argue the need for editing is prevalent, maybe more than ever. Again, full disclosure: I'm an editor who believes in the power of what I do for my readers. Look at a full day of Facebook entries if you don't agree. It's rare to find the writer who can edit their own work sufficiently to match paid-for, printed content. That's why there's a lingering disdain of electronic content. Five years ago, prior to decent ereaders and a proliferation of publisher-vetted downloadable content, that disdain was impenetrable. Now you can read NYT bestsellers in the same format as self-published books - over 350,000 titles on Kindle alone - which leads us to the most essential value publishers will continue to provide.
Publishers are gatekeepers and content-sorters. Anyone who's tried to read a full complement of blogs, news, social networking sites, and fiction knows the sheer volume of available content is unmanageable. Reading as entertainment has long had competition from TV, film, sports events, but now it competes with its own industry spin-offs, like free online fiction, blogs, and news outlets. Sorting, gate-keeping, and quality assurance are going to become more important than ever. Industry professionals disagree on whether this situation equals more or less pay for writers, but one thing we all agree on: the bar has been raised if you want to make a living as a writer.
Writing sounds a bit grim when it's put like that. So where are the new opportunities for writers? All around us, but not in the format we're probably used to. The first thing writers need to do is to expand their view of what writing actually is and what it's becoming. Here are some examples to break down prejudices and definitions of success. Compare the writer who makes a living writing erotica fiction for online sites with the author of a great book in print who couldn't feed her cat for a year on the royalties she's made. Consider an acclaimed short story writer who has a handful of pro print sales verses another writer who has over fifty mid-rate print and online short story sales. J.A. Konrath, a thriller writer who's published and sold pretty well in print form, is currently making better royalties on his backlist from Kindle versions than from his print books. Success used to be considered - and still is by many - The Book in paper form, preferably in hardback to garner reviews. But for some writers success might look very different. So, the first thing a writer needs to do when developing a career in the Digital Age is to define personal success.
Traditionally, speculative fiction writers built their early careers through shorter pieces rather than starting out in the novel form. My favorite part about "The New Writing Age" are the many opportunities writers have to pay those dues. Spec fiction readers are often on the cutting edge of technology. In other words, they're reading online, on their phones, and on ereaders. They devour websites and blogs. Short story credits, articles, even building a blog or online platform audience prior to publication only helps a writing career to flourish, especially for spec fiction writers. The same guy who read your story last month in a free ezine will buy the Kindle version of your book and might even pick up a hardback for his home library. Stories in free online venues are like author advertising. It's even better when editors pay you for the privilege.
Regular readers know I'm a huge proponent of writing and selling short stories, either alongside or prior to selling a novel. It gets a writer used to sales and rejections, develops perseverance and a thick skin, educates writers about the industry and trains writers to work with editors and the variety of folks required to bring a piece up to par for publication. At Electric Spec, all three editors touch each story and cover art, and even our web designer sometimes looks things over and notifies us of needed changes. As the scale of the publisher and the piece grows, more people collaborate to bring the best quality to the audience.
Collaboration is a growing form of creating. According to Gameinformer Magazine, the movie industry is mining the gaming industry for stories. We've seen a surge of films based on graphic novels. Such cross-marketing efforts aren't new, but it's yet to hit written fiction full steam. It's coming, though, evidenced by elaborate author websites and book trailers. I've had extensive writers conference bar discussions about why and how to link music and other media to written fiction. On Kindle you can highlight words and look them up in the onboard dictionary, check Wikipedia, and listen to a few tunes. Think how great it will be to read an epic fantasy novel filled with unfamiliar terms when you can highlight a term or character you've forgotten and access the glossary at the bottom of your screen. Imagine books with soundtracks and slide shows. It'll only be a matter of time before some books come with DVDish features like author notes, glossaries, links, and inspirations. Think Mark Teppo's "The Oneiromantic Mosaic of Henry Potemkin" on drugs. With the advance of new ereaders, such collaborative, interactive releases aren't far off. It only takes artists interested in doing such a thing to start a new trend, and industry professionals and creatives love to tinker.
A close cousin to collaboration is interaction, like the comments section linked to every story on CNN. Conversation is the new genre, outstripping fiction and non-fiction alike. On one end of the spectrum writers collaborate with other artists to create, but on the other end a whole world of readers have the means and will to talk back. This means that not only should writing be accessible, superior, collaborative, and interactive, it requires above all relevance. Relevance is constantly sought out by writers, readers, and publishers and it will continue to impact the publication industry. One problem with Old School ways: print can't compete with digital's time-to-market. The printed word has yet to match the digital word in the race to relevance.
It's an exciting time to be a writer. We have more opportunity and readership than ever before. Print publishers, it's widely agreed, are a bit sluggish on the uptake. That won't last for long, but for now it's up to writers, the life blood of the industry, to take the reins. Don't sit back and let technology pass you by. This is the artist's best chance to define career, industry, and writing itself.