The Future for Writers

Over at Robert J. Sawyer’s blog he muses about the future of full-time novelists. The comment section is filled with pessimistic anecdotes about the writing life and how hundreds of working writers will inevitably fade away when the world no longer buys books, or some such thing. Coupled with recent announcements like the fact that Dorchester Publishing’s Leisure books line is no longer going to print mass market paperbacks, and that Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardcovers (apparently), the writing world is buzzing with, to paraphrase my friend and colleague Bob Freeman’s term, “Chicken Little-itis.”

I wrote a comment on Sawyer’s blog:

Actually, I’ve found some degree of success with the serialization model. In ‘06, I was the first author to partner with Myspace to do a month-long official serialized fiction piece that sent out a chapter each day. I did great netting new fans and subscribers – no money, but the experiment proved it could work given the right approach.

In 2010, I decided to try it myself and invited people to subscribe in order to get a chapter each week in their email for $7.95 for the entire year. That project will earn me roughly $4,000 this year. Not huge money, sure, but when combined with the work-for-hire novels I write for Harlequin/Gold Eagle, along with my “traditional” novel sales, and the ebooks I sell via Amazon and direct via my website, the money adds up.

Writers need to focus on establishing and then maintaining multiple income streams for their work; it’s simply not enough to hope that a traditional publishing deal will save the day. More so given the crazy contract clauses that seem to have found their way into the contracts of several friends – in particular one clause that states the writer can’t write anything else during the duration of the contract except for the 3 contracted books (and the advance for each? $10,000) So a traditional publisher now expects a writer to live on $30,000 – if they wrote them all within a year? Gimme a break.

As for Hollywood, don’t be so quick to think of it as only a pie-in-the-sky dream. The business model is changing out there as well. My business partner and I have raised private investment funds to turn a series of my books into a TV series. The technology now exists much cheaper than ever before to produce your own material and then sell it across a wide spectrum of potential platforms. Example: a few years back, the digital HD cameras ran about $20,000 for a RED ONE body (not including lenses or rigs, etc. etc.) Nowadays, you can get a a Canon EOS 5D mkII for a whopping $2500 and then outfit it with lenses and rigs for another few thousand.

In short, a writer looking to survive and survive well only needs to be open to seeing the possibilities of a future that can, and (I think) will be bright. Will everyone prosper? Hell, no. When I hear writers bemoaning the use of social networking and having no clue how to set up a Facebook Page for themselves, then it’s pretty obvious there will be some serious Darwinism at work. But for those who understand the new technology and the business behind entertainment, I expect they will be fine.

Different, yes. But still in the business of creating great content and being paid for it.

I’ve often compared the writing life to the martial arts world and the intersection of the two of them comes down to one point: an overall sense of awareness that enables a flexible response to the changing environment. Whether it’s combat or writing, the rules are the same in this case. If you remain fixed on one point and rely solely on that, then you’re doomed. I’ve known people who train only for one scenario in a fight. They obviously get really REALLY good at dealing with that scenario, but as is so often the case, when the situation actually manifests, it’s not what they trained to do and they get ripped apart.

The same goes for writing. I’ve known authors who (for example) viewed a contract with Leisure as the be-all-end-all of publishing. (And given the crappiness of a Leisure contract, all it really did was point out how little said writer knew about the business behind writing) Horror authors in particular have always had this special love for Leisure and now comes news of its paperback demise. They’re scrambling. “What do I do now? Who else publishes horror?”

The time to figure out a strategy is NOT when things are going bad. The time to lay out a strategy is when things are going WELL. As a warrior, you must be alert to changes in alliances, see the potential for friends to become enemies and vice versa, understand the effects of economy on threat conditions, be able to use shifting environments to their advantage, establish new sources of intelligence, mine already established contacts, and so on. As a writer, you must be alert for new technologies that can create new opportunities, understand the business behind entertainment, establish new contacts and friends already in those new markets, and look to establish a presence there, and so on.

A lot of writers will no doubt fade away. But the smart ones will figure out how to survive and indeed, prosper. In the same way, a smart warrior uses every tool at his disposal to survive – not just the business ends of his weapons. Those who failed to grasp that point, inevitably stayed on the battlefield long after the living already left.

Your mileage may vary…

Later this week I’ll offer up some suggestions for those “multiple income streams.” So please be sure to come on back!

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  • Cliff VanMeter August 9, 2010  

    It’s been the same for me in the comics field. I’ve been doing my own webcomic. Making money from the site, from periodic print editions, digital editions, and other merchandise while building an audience. I’ve even licensed the title for international reprints in an Italian magazine. I’ve got 4000 Facebook friends and 1800 fans for the title, 10,000 unique visitors per month to the site and I’m launching a second online title. Multiple revenue streams ARE the key.

    Cliff VanMeter

  • Robert Dean August 9, 2010  

    The one issue I come back to getting started in a time like this. I’m blogging, have almost 600 followers on Twitter and paper the internet with blogging/writing for as many outlets as possible. But, trying to find an avenue for an audience with an agent or publisher is absolutely gruesome.

  • admin August 9, 2010  

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Cliff! Glad things are going so well for you!

  • admin August 9, 2010  

    It’s a tough time to try to find an agent given the topsy-turvy world of publishing right now. Are you selling ebooks or short stories on Amazon?

  • Brian R McCulloch August 9, 2010  

    Every one of us in the ‘arts’ has to deal with this, ever since photoshop and illustrator really turned into viable products the demise of the traditional artist has been predicted, just as when the camera was invented. But many still cling to out messy bottles of paints and try to adapt. Someone has to write those E books Jon.

  • Scott Nicholson August 9, 2010  

    The sad irony is those most entrenched in the system are the ones who see “loss and failure.” Most of the rest of us are going, “Thank You, God!” I don’t see how anyone creative could not be excited beyond belief over this era.

    Scott Nicholson

  • admin August 9, 2010  

    Indeed, Brian!

  • admin August 9, 2010  

    Great point, Scott! I’m excited as hell about the future…

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