It’s Hard Out There For A Writer


In a much-discussed NYT essay, Tim Kreider beseeches his fellow writers to stop working for free:

A familiar figure in one’s 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won’t be paying you in money, man, because you’re getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit – as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer. “Artist Dies of Exposure” goes the rueful joke.

Harlan Ellison has a great, if somewhat excessive, rant on this:

Development economist Chris Blattman pushes back:

I feel for Kreider, but he tells only his side of the story. Writers were, to a degree, protected by costs of entry and distance and communication. That protection is falling away. This is painful and disruptive, especially because it is so abrupt. But the other sides must be told.

One is that more people get a shot at an audience than ever before, from academic development economists to North African activists to precocious 20-year olds with talent. Another side is that more people get more information and ideas at a lower price than ever before. If good writing and ideas are valuable, surely making it cheaper and more widely available is a good thing? Especially for the people in the world who before could least afford it.

I’m pinioned between these two conflicting forces. Magazine writers were coddled in luxurious greenhouses for years and in some ways, the new desert we are struggling in is a tonic against some of the mediocre crap that used to be run at endless length in what were effectively gilded guilds. And yet, the new landscape is also more of a desert than a plain. There’s almost nothing to eat unless you do something other than writing as well. Some new media patrons seem to be filling in the gaps – in nonfiction, we have Bezos and Omidyar and Hughes coming to the rescue. Others may follow. But that would be – yes, I will retire this metaphor in this sentence – a bunch of precious, gilded oases, in a still-vast wasteland, rather than a viable, renewable ecology.

What interests me is finding a way to pay writers with money that comes from readers.

It’s that simple really. The end of paper and print as the delivery system should make that feasible in principle. After all, what the old media barons used to have on their side was their unique ability to pay for all that industrial-sized printing and mailing. Now, all those costs have disappeared. So where are the new journals and magazines and blogazines, founded by writers and aimed at readers? There are many online, and at the Dish we do all we can to find and promote them. But there is as yet no viable, sustained model for them to stand on their own two feet.

But we’re trying to innovate one. I’m not saying this to ask you to [tinypass_offer text=”subscribe”] if you haven’t (but I’ll take a new subscription any time). I’m saying it because the Dish model of small, renewable subscription payments is an obvious way forward.

Companies like Tinypass have begun to make this technologically feasible. Affiliate revenue – like the Amazon revenue a blog like Brain Pickings relies on for a great deal of its income – can also help. Banner ads can also be useful – but it’s hard (and ethically tenuous) for a lone writer to both do her job and also persuade companies to sponsor her. Remnant advertizing – breakthroughs in testosterone! – can work too. Put some or all of this together and you have a model that might provide more writers with a way to make a living as writers.

In other words, what makes my own job so exhilarating – and nerve-wracking – is the chance not just to create and constantly evolve an online blogazine, but to pioneer a bit of this new writing economy. Dish subscribers already pay six full-time writers and researchers (including interns) and give everyone health insurance; in the future, we’d really like to start using this still-new model to commission and pay good money for long-form journalism. We won’t be able to help book-writers (except for promoting, examining and talking about), but we hope to be able to help nonfiction writers more generally – and not just with eyeballs. That’s why subscribing to the Dish is not just about the Dish. It’s about trying to create a new economy for writing. Think of us as an ice-breaker ship. If we can find a new passage to viable new media, many many others can follow. So, yes, I’m not going to be coy. If you care about the future of writers in this economy and want to empower them rather than potential new corporate overlords, [tinypass_offer text=”subscribe here”].

(Photo by Hamed Saber)