Friday, November 5, 2010

On Writers, Professional and Otherwise

By Alan Caruba

One thing the invention of the personal computer and the Internet has done has turned millions of people into writers. Millions of blogs exist so that people can express and share their views on every subject on earth. Forums provide further opportunity to share one’s thoughts, if only to comment on others’.

I do not consider the 140-word limit on Twittering to be writing. That’s more like a Post-It Note, but in contrast to that there has been an explosion of self-published books. I know about this firsthand because I have been a book reviewer for fifty years and, for the past decade, have seen far too many poorly written, but self-published books.

Over the course of those fifty years I have been a professional writer in one capacity or another. After getting out of the U.S. Army, one of my first jobs was as a reporter for a New Jersey weekly. That led swiftly to becoming its editor because there was no one else around to do the job! From there I progressed to a reporter on a daily newspaper and, from there, a series of jobs, all of which required writing and editing skills.

In the early 1970’s I joined the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Journalists and Authors (formerly the Society of Magazine Writers), the National Science Writers Association, and was a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle. I cite these affiliations because it meant that most of my friends were drawn from a relatively small community of writers for newspapers, magazines, and of books.

I rubbed elbows with the nation’s leading magazine writers and authors, and had occasion to meet and chat with literary giants like James Michener, playwright Tennessee Williams, and others. For the most part, though, my fellow writers were more akin to blue collar working stiffs, turning out magazine articles to pay the rent or writing books that barely sold enough copies to justify the small advances they received.

At one point, some writer’s organization underwrote a survey of what authors earned from their books and the average turned out to be something in the range of $5,000. You could earn more pumping gas or even mowing lawns given the months of labor involved.

In September the Wall Street Journal ran a page one story, “Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books” by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. In essence, he found that authors are getting smaller advances against the sales of their books these days and their take on an e-book is pitiful. A hardcover book sold at $28.00 will yield $14.00 for the publisher and $4.20 for the author. The same book in an electronic edition will sell for $12.99, putting $9.00 in the publisher’s pocket and a mere $2.27 for the author.

Writing for magazines is not much better. Time was a professional writer could expect $1 a word for an article as the minimum standard and often much more if one had some measure of fame. A random look at what some of the top professional writers are earning these days suggests they are lucky to be paid at that minimum level. Pay levels vary depending on the publication, but it is no secret that both newspapers and magazines are suffering losses of advertising and other income, further reducing or eliminating any payment.

Long ago I got into the public relations profession and that afforded me the opportunity to see my writing in various media, usually in the form of a news release or a feature article. As news and opinion websites proliferated on the Internet I began to contribute to them and, in 2007, I started my own blog where my posts on anything that interests me are provided to websites and other blogs at no cost.

For many of my writer friends, it is writing of the kind that lacks any fame, glamour or excitement that pays the bills. Many earn a living editing the work of other writers. There are medical conference reports or scripts for business conference moderators that pay well. Some pick up a fee as speakers or, better still, as speech writers. Many teach—usually at the college and university level.

I cannot tell you the many times I have ghost-written commentaries for people too famous and too busy to write their own.

For the vast legion of amateur writers my advice is to find something more productive to do. The world is not waiting for your memoir or autobiography. Unless you have spent years developing expertise in some area of life and work, either demand to be paid for it or refuse to give it away for free.

As the economy continues to head south, writing for a living has generally preceded the decline. For publications of all descriptions, the plethora of free material has proved a godsend.

Literally for centuries writing has always has always been a very difficult way to make a living. You know only about those authors who actually found an audience and market while the countless others sank beneath the waves of exploitation and indifference. Many famous writers famously died broke. And drunk.

The song, “Mothers don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys” applies equally to the writing profession. And it’s good advice.

© Alan Caruba, 2010


TexasFred said...

If I were to rely on writing a blog to pay the bills, I would find myself homeless and thin, conditions I am not well suited to endure.

Alan Caruba said...

I loved my Father, but I do wish he had worked harder and left me a huge inheritance.

I have a couple of books to my credit, countless magazine articles, op eds in big newspapers, etc. None of them put much money in my pocket.

Fortunately, PR has provided a comfortable living.

Pitch said...

No Alan, it's damn good advice! Once upon a time many life times ago I felt I had a certain knack for clever and creative writing. However, I quickly found that rejection wasn't one of my strong suits and I decided to learn other ways where my many talents could be rewarded commensurate with my skills...My biggest downfall was never learning the finer art of Political Correctness...I was always too abrasive and offensive for those that either can't stand the truth or don't have sense enough to know the truth based on the reality of the moment...I must compliment you and say you generally do a very nice job of walking the delicate tight rope between one or the other and this or that...

Alan Caruba said...

@Pitch. Thank you. I think age has a lot to do with being able to step back from the passion of the moment or the issue and write about it dispassionately.

This does not mean I do not have strong feelings about a lot of issues, events and people, but a flat-out rant doesn't serve any purpose.

TJP said...

I enjoyed reading your article, Alan, on a subject close to my heart. I self-published several children's novels primarily because I like to do things my own stubborn way and self-publishing allowed me that option because of the reduced costs of digital technology.

Though I received a few nice reviews on some of my books and sold a handful, I never made any real money (so I guess I'm an "otherwise" writer and not truly a "professional".) Part of that is because I treat it more as a hobby and prefer life out of the spotlight. Probably not a good combination if one wants to make a living putting words together, so I have a real job on the side to pay the bills.

Telling stories through writing though, is part of my make-up which is why I'll continue to do it regardless of the financial outcome. I'm currently working on my one, huge novel I HAVE to write before I leave this earth (not in any hurry) and plan to finish the tome even if I knew beforehand that no one else in the world would ever read it. I guess it's like some people climbing Everest, sailing around the world or creating a perfect "anything" in their own eyes. For some reason they are compelled to do it. Writing is something I enjoy doing (most of the time) and am thankful to God for the talent.

I also turn out an occasional letter to the editor regarding politics too, which is why I really check out your site with interest regularly, so keep the articles coming. But your take on other subjects nonpolitical, such as the writing life, are always a treat to read.

Alan Caruba said...

@TJP: You are leaving a legacy to your family with your children's books and there are stories of many writers who were discovered after they passed on. Emily Dickinson, the poet, was only rarely published in her lifetme, until her sister found and published her poems as a book.

Writing is also a form of therapy, allowing one to get in touch with their feelings and beliefs.

Ronbo said...

I'm writing THE GREAT AMERICAN novel without jogging, sex or Nazis in the plot.

It's going VERY slow :-)

Rich Kozlovich said...


I have been posting on sites and my own blog for a few years now and I have to say that I find it emotionally draining, exhilarating, enlightening and most importantly....more self educational than reading alone can possibly do.

By forcing yourself to put your thoughts down on paper it forces you to dig deeply into the subject and evaluate your views and attitudes; which makes me wonder about the sanity of some of these people on left, especially the greenie left. The amount of intellectual dishonesty they have to display in order to spout the things they do must completely derange them.

It is unfortunatle that essay writting has gone by the wayside in schools these days.

I certainly will never make a living at this…and fortunately I don’t have to, but I do think “issue” blogging has changed everything.

The difference is that you actually know how to write and write intelligently and informatively on a great many subjects.

Best wishes,

Alan Caruba said...

@Rich: You're right. Writing is a form of self-education, particularly the kind I do because I have to be able to cite documentation if challenged...and fortunately that rarely happens.

Alan Caruba said...

@Ronbo: A novel with no sex or Nazis? It will never sell!

LarryOldtimer said...

I have been reading Warning Signs almost from the time you began writing it, Alan. You present well the "facts of the matter" the best you know them, without "pulling any punches", and after the weather and what is referred to as "news", your blog is always read by me next.

Because of my great idle curiosity, and great interest of "things scientific" from when I was a wee lad, I have been self-taught in many fields of science, as well as taking college/university courses in chemistry and physics, along with the math to go with those courses.

You are about the only "journalist" I have any use for, and I have great respect for you.

As for professional writing, "best do it for the love of it," published authors I have known told me.

I often write, for myself to read, just to get my thoughts in a rational order.

Keep on with your most excellent writing, Alan.

Alan Caruba said...

Thanks, Larry. Like yourself, I am largely self-taught in the sciences as I had only one college course, zoology, that touched on it.

As for writing, I will continue as long as I can, but I think the economy will ultimately crash and take me, you, and everybody else down with it.