Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Waiting For The Great Leap Forward

By Jay Stringer

I’d like to start off with two things. Firstly, a thank you. Mr Chuck Wendig did a great job of raising the level of discourse in this slot while I was off taking care of bidness. It’s good to have Chuck as part of the DSD family, and we’ll see him again.

Secondly, an apology; I had said that today would be a follow up to Russel’s blog about Batman. I’ll get to that in a couple weeks, honest.

So, anyway. I’ve had an issue scratching away at my noggin for some time now, we touch on it in our most recent podcast, but I’m like a dog with a bone when something is tapping away at me.

Today's furrowed brow; Making money as a writer in the modern age.

Firstly, it might be worth watching this video by Mark Thomas, a UK comedian and activist and someone I admire quite a lot, about digital laws. Plus it has Billy Bragg, just for you.

Okay? Quick recap; Mark is talking about the stand off between the film/TV industry and the Internet. Not news really, anyone who’s lived through the last fifteen years knows all about that.

There is legislation at work that will enable people to be banned from the net for illegally downloading content. There’s a clause in it too that allows the kind folks in charge a hell of a lot of discretion as to what content deserves a ban.




Billy Bragg raises the idea that the age of freely exchanged data and music is helping the ‘smaller’ artists. Its also helping the lineage, as he points out, when he was a teenager and heard Dylan was inspired by Guthrie, he had no options. In this day and age the same teenaged William of Bragg would type a name into a magic box and have a whole wiki history to read as well as a shed load of recorded music to listen to. Would this pimply balladeer have paid for anyone of it? Probably not. But would the artists message be getting out to new ears? Definitely.

Uh oh. Grey area alert. Move on, quick.

That great prophet of our time, the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

But times are changing. Frank Turner, who is also well worth checking out, raised the question last year of whether musicians will soon be required to give away their recordings for free, making a living from touring and merchandise. Funny thing is that aside from the top 10% of musicians, the ones who sell enough records to actually make a dime from their contracts, you’d probably find that this version of business wouldn’t make that much of a difference to the income of the jobbing ‘smaller’ musician.

In fact, as Bragg suggests in the video, it’s quite easy to see the record industries mistrust of the internet as fear for themselves. Because the artists are still there and the customers are still there, its just the model that’s changing.

Okay, so, since I long ago gave up my attempts at being a jobbing musician, why is this scratching away at my noggin?

Well, music, film, TV…books. We’re ALL writers. A butterfly starts giving away recorded content for free in New York, and a writer may be expected to do the same in Glasgow. I’m sure some chaos mathematician said that.

If one industry moves to a new model, and the value of the content changes, what’s to say all content won’t follow suit? Who’s to say that we don’t need to come up with -pretty damn quickly- a way to be able to write to a professional standard AND still earn a living. I know I’m not alone in working full time at a ‘real’ job, and then coming home to spend all night doing the hard and rewarding task of writing. And I also know I’ll always being doing that writing, regardless of money.

I can’t speak for filmmakers or musicians (though I will, at length, if you buy me a drink), and I can’t really speak for any writer other than myself. But we’ve been conditioned that the films and the albums and the books are products. And that they are what the customer is paying for, and what the artist is being paid for. Again, don’t know about others, but for me that’s not what I’m looking for in my early steps to professional writing. I’ll always be doing that anyway, and in some possibly misguided way it’s my art. It’s not a job. So the books that I’m writing (two and counting, hey, how did that happen?) are not what I want to be paid for, they are not products that I want to wave at the world as a thing. They are something that I care about, and get a lot of fulfilment from. What I want to be paid for are all the things that I can’t do when I’m writing.

The jobs that would pay bills, all of that. It’s more of a sponsorship than a business deal, to my mind. Being sponsored to have the time to write, and to have ever more time with each passing story so that I can develop and change and hopefully entertain.

Having this time to give to the writing, and to social niceties like bathing and talking to my partner, would be my priority, and I do wonder if we need to start having more and louder discussions on how we’ll do that in the years ahead.

A case I’m paying close attention to is Steve Bryant over in the wonderful world of comic books. Steve writes the second best pulp heroine, Athena Voltaire, and she is his labour of love, in an industry that doesn’t really indulge such things these days. As he himself says on the website, he has to try and steal an hour here or there just to draw one panel, and a year can go by before he has a finished issue. Commercially that’s not viable, artistically it’s wasting and it just doesn’t put food on the table. He has worked out he needs $7,000 to produce his next mini-series. That’s the figure he has put not just on the printing and packaging, but also on the time he needs to devote to doing the work. He’s asking for people to sponsor the project and, as I understand it, he is working on ways to reward the sponsorship. So for he has raised 2,000.

This seems somewhat close to McFet’s Co-Op discussion, which you can go and join in on here. It’s not quite the same, but it’s along the same lines, trying to find a different workable model.

So what would be the model for us writers? And how will we continue to collaborate with the people we need; editors and agents? Sure, I could have stumped up some cash when I finished draft one of book one, and printed it up myself to sell my opus to the world. But I’m not sure that would have made me a writer. Opening myself up to the process of submission, rejection and advice made me a writer. Working with editorial voices that I trusted elevated my work above the mess that first tumbled out of my head. And having an agent in my corner who knows what I’m trying to do, even when I sometimes forget, is what keeps the books on track. So we still need to factor in the idea that, as much as writing is about sitting your ass down in a lonely room for hours at a time, it’s also about collaborating and needing guidance.

So here’s pretty much where I’m at.

We can’t go down the route that 90% of jobbing musicians may well find themselves in. Because the work and the material is different, even though the march of progress and the buying public might not agree. So where do we go?

What is the next step? Or is there some great advance in technology that we haven’t even thought up yet that will make all these questions irrelevant?

I’d like to see what you think. Let me know in the comments, and even better, head over to the Co-Op discussion.

“The revolution’s just a t-shirt away”


Chuck said...

I take a pretty blue-collar approach to writing. I don't perceive it as an art, though there may be an artfulness to it. Others may decide that. Writers are craftsmen. We have tools, and with them, build stories.

These stories can become products, but I think "product" is a term in danger of a bad connotation. We think of it like processed food. But the carpenter who builds an original chair has just made a product -- it's a beautiful product, a hand-crafted product, a wonderful product.

Still a product, though.

And the man should be paid.

Writers, too, should be paid.

Now, if that means they're paid through some kind of sponsorship (hey, it's the Renaissance all over again!) or co-op something-or-other, hey, cool. If that means the writer creates something and sells it himself, I'm not opposed to that; yes, editors and agents and other writers help make that process shine, but some of the greatest writers of our time were not beholden to the modern process and used readers or other writers to hone the craft.

Good thoughts, here, to be sure.

But I firmly fall on the side of, writers should be paid.

As I say in an earlier post...


... "What you do has value, so claim value for what you do."

-- c.

Chuck said...

Oh, and glad to be hanging around you crazy DSD-heads.


-- c.

John McFetridge said...

A long time ago someone said to me, if you want your art to pay the bills, make sure you have very few bills. And wasn’t it Kurt Vonnegut who said the most important thing in becoming a writer is to marry well?


About the Great Leap Forward – I have a modest proposal. I say we look to TV, the movies and music and combine them – we get together in ‘bands’ and write ‘episodes’ that will make up a ‘season,’ of a ‘show.’

Here, let me see if I can explain.

The TV industry has changed a lot and we didn’t seem to notice. Cable TV changed the model the same way e-books are going to change publishing, I think. The old model still exists, there are still network TV shows and movies but now there are also Cable TV shows.

The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, I’m really looking forward to Boardwalk Empire, and many more. None of these could have been network shows and they couldn’t have been movies, either. Well, they could have been, just not as good as they are (and might be).

But you couldn’t have one episode of The Sopranos every year, you have to have 8 or 10 or 13 all come out in consecutive weeks. And some people watch them as they come out and some people, like me, wait and get the box set and watch them all in a week.

And that’s what I see e-books doing to books.

My novel, Dirty Sweet, is for sale on Kobo right now for two bucks. That book took two and a half years to write and another six months to edit and you can buy it for two bucks. It’s three hundred pages. I think I’d pay two bucks for a hundred pages I really like. Or fifty pages. Especially if I know another fifty pages with the same characters is coming out next week.

I’m not talking about a serialized novel, just taking the three hundred pages and cutting it into installments with cliffhanger endings, I’m talking about episodes with a single story arc that continues for the whole 8 or 10 or 12 episodes, but each episode with a self-contained story as well.

Like a Cable TV show.

And ‘published’ once a week for 8 or 10 or 12 weeks. With advertising. A kind of online ‘event.’

And then a few weeks or months later packaged together as a ‘box set’ and published like that (hey, maybe even with some extras). And maybe then even published as a paper book if it’s popular enough, I don’t know. (but wouldn’t that be funny if paper books became the aftermarket?)

Would you pay a buck for each installment? How about $1.49? Maybe if you sign up for the whole ‘season’ you get ten episodes for five bucks? The box set sells for ten?

Okay there are a lot of details to work out. I don’t really follow comic books, but I understand this is what they do, sell installments and then a hardcover collection.

Declan Burke said...

Chuck - No disrespect, squire, but writing is an art. Writers can be blue-collar, white-collar or (my own preferred style) no-collar, but they're artists. What's produced can then be sold as a product, fair enough. But the process is an artistic one.

As for the Great Leap Forward: I was watching a programme last night in which a group of women sitting around a table eating cake agreed that they'd pay more for a smaller version of the cake. Maybe not quite the classic 'less is more' argument, but certainly a validation of Jay's idea that if you believe what you make has value, then put a value on it. I don't mind writing for free, mainly because very few people want to pay for my stuff; but then, I like my (real) job, and it (just about) pays the bills.

In terms of the bigger picture, doing the gig part-time could very well make you a better writer, or at least produce more interesting books, because the writer isn't under any commercial pressure to produce a particular kind of book.

Apologies that the above thoughts are utterly random ...

Cheers, Dec

Chuck said...


No harm, no foul, sir.

It's a personal bias, I admit, but I'm just not willing to call writing an art form. That makes me an "artist," and I damn sure know I'm not. Art is a thing that is often held above other things, and I refuse to let what I do be that from my perspective. Someone else wants to name it as such, that's fine.

Me, though, I don't think writing is any more important -- or, really, any different -- from building a chair or tilling the earth to grow crops.

It's work.

But it's good work. It's honest work. And it takes craft.

My zwei pfennig.

On value, work, jobs, product:

Me, I'm a full-time writer, and I aim to stay that way. That's the job I love the most. I've no problem with being a part of that system and providing products because a lot of the works I've truly loved have been born of that system. I don't think it's a bad thing.

-- c.

Jay Stringer said...


Don't disagree over the art/craft thing totally. I think good craftsmen make art. Structurally writing does compare to anything else creative. We have to know how to join the dots, learn the craft, and the chair comparison works. But i don't think a chair is going to save someones life in the way a writer can, by filling their craft with that little bit extra that makes it art.

I could build a chair the exactly the same plan as Jim Dodge, but i couldn't write stone junction. Much as i might try.

(i was going to say "a chair can't change the way someone looks at the world" but then i realised that's exactley what a chair can do..)

I don't disagree that there's anything wrong with the current system other than i think it's time is running out.


Liking the idea. And to run with it in a different way, it could be like the model that has been used by the comics industry. Publish the chapters serially, the money you get from which pays for the heavy lifting, and then when done it can be packaged as a novel and that's all food on the table.


Good thoughts as ever. I think you've hit on two important points. Find a 'day job' that you like, and free yourself from the commercial pressures.

Kyle Maxwell said...

I'm interested to watch this, partly as an amateur, partly as an aspiring publisher looking for a model (John's has a lot of interesting bits to it), but mostly as a reader who obviously has a vested interest in seeing the stuff I want to read continue to exist.

In fact, I want it to grow and expand and trip over itself and mutate into gigantic slavering plants that consume us all... no, wait, that's later. I just want the fiction I read to continue to evolve into whatever its future becomes, in both the literary and publishing senses.

But mutant plants would still be cool.