Writing for Money

Harlan Ellison‘s rant “Pay the Writer” is getting some favorable linkage, notably from Max Boot and Michael Totten.

He vows that “I don’t take a piss without getting paid.”  Which, I suppose, is good work if you can get it.

Ellison is an all-time great and he’s been getting paid to write — and been famous — since before I was born.  So, his, um, output is worth more than most. But the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of people out there who are willing to do all kinds of writing without getting paid.   Most op-eds you see in the major papers are published free or for an insultingly nominal fee.   Most blogs don’t generate enough to pay for operating expenses.

Ditto TV talking heads.  Yes, show hosts get paid; some handsomely.  But the guests who appear seldom do.  It’s supply and demand: There are a bevy of attention whores out there who will, at a moment’s notice, drop whatever it is they’re doing and take three hours out of their day in order to get 7 minutes of air time on a cable news show no one is watching.

Good luck getting paid in that climate.

UPDATE:  Over at his other blog, Dave Schuler offers his thoughts on “The Perversity of the Publishing System” and draws commentary from Michael Reynolds of Sideways Mencken, a quite successful author of children’s books under various pseudonyms, notably Michael Grant.   Let’s just say that great literature and massive book royalties are not necessarily overlapping categories.

That’s true of the arts-pop culture nexus, generally.  There are some magnificent singers and actors who earn their living doing something else, practicing their crafts as hobbies or for their local church or community theaters.  And some mediocrities who have multiple mansions and a fleet of exotic automobilies.  As has oft been noted, life ain’t always fair.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. One Fine Jay says:

    Ellison approaches writing the way RuPaul approaches drag, and to be honest it’s a good thing. Today’s writing environment is flush with both professional and amateur talent that publishers essentially offer a medieval-style patronage system for their writers, with the prime example as that of the Medicis.

    Little catfish like myself have to make to do with what little we can get while doing other things to make rent.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I believe Ellison’s main complaint is at TV/film. I think from his P.O.V. the writer sells his story and that should be that unless they get paid for more. He’s complained that the writer gets so excited about seeing his story reach mass audience that the writer starts doing edits and rewrites for free, moving camera equipment for free, etc.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    re TV cable news whores: I assume they are all getting paid.

    The politicians, the public interest/think-tank groups, are the college professors are all in the business (some more than others) of educating and engaging public opinion. As I see it, they are getting paid, just not by TV.

  4. James Joyner says:

    The politicians, the public interest/think-tank groups, are the college professors are all in the business (some more than others) of educating and engaging public opinion. As I see it, they are getting paid, just not by TV.

    Few universities reward professors for getting on TV; indeed, I’m sure some view it negatively because talking in sound bytes isn’t scholarly. Think tanks are more amenable. Mostly, though, these folks go on TV for the psychic rewards rather than to advance their career.

  5. Eric Florack says:

    But the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of people out there who are willing to do all kinds of writing without getting paid. Most op-eds you see in the major papers are published free or for an insultingly nominal fee. Most blogs don’t generate enough to pay for operating expenses.

    Indeed. And those who do get paid for it for the most part will tell you that they struggled for years to even get exposure, much less pay.

  6. Herb says:

    I’ve long admired Ellison, but he’s a relic of another age. I’d take lessons from him on the craft of writing, but on the business end? Not so much.

    Have you ever heard him extol the merits of the small press and then asked yourself, “What small press?”

    Besides, I’d like to see how Ellison would fare without frivolous lawsuits or collective bargaining agreements….

  7. When I talk to aspiring young writers I point at that it is either a hobby or a business. If it’s a business — if you intend to get paid — then you need to understand that part of it. People may or may not like the business aspect of it but if you want to get paid there’s not much point in railing against it. You don’t get paid for railing, you get paid for winning the game.

    In many ways I’m no different than anyone else who produces a product for market.

  8. Eric Florack says:

    Michael;
    I should think that a lot of that would depend on what style of writing you’re doing, and where you intend to get published.

    To take extremes, there’s a major difference between doing what you do, and what I do, or James, perhaps… and where we each plan to get published.

    As a casual observation, I would think that writing children’s books, being a somewhat more mature medium is far easier to understand, than is the world of online publishing.

    Since you do both, perhaps you’d care to comment on the aspect of the differences between the two?

  9. Hangtown Bob says:

    All I can say is that if people stopped paying him to take a piss, he wouldn’t be around long enough to worry about making any money from writing. Hello uremic poisoning!

  10. Eric:

    This is a long answer, so I apologize in advance —

    I write online as a hobby. I blog or don’t as the mood strikes me.

    Writing fiction however is my business so I treat it with a lot more seriousness. It has almost nothing to do with my mood. Moods are for hobbyists.

    Imagine a surgeon who ties knots to sew up an artery, but also on the weekend enjoys tying fishing lures. He’ll bring some skill to either task but he’s not likely to confuse the two.

    The problem with writing on-line is a lack of gatekeepers. You have, let’s say, a million people writing online. We as consumers skim around, looking here and there in a sort of chaotic way, to find what we like. 99% of blogs or online books are wastes of time, 1% are worth reading, but we don’t have a convenient guide to help us find the 1%.

    A publisher is that guide. The fact that HarperCollins publishes me, immediately lifts me out of that vast field and makes me one of a 1000 rather than 1 of a million. Basically, it’s a lot easier for a reader to find me because I have the big red and blue HC logo stamped on my forehead. The reader can’t know whether I’m any good, but they can know that someone who should know (an editor) thinks I am.

    Further, the reader has an expectation that because I live under the discipline of the marketplace I must not be godawful. No such guarantee exists in online media.

    To use a restaurant analogy, I’m like the national chain burger joint as opposed to the mom and pop burger joint. A consumer may not be impressed with my national chain but they have reason to expect that at least I won’t poison them. There I am, in the marketplace, so how bad could I be?

    And don’t dismiss this discipline of the marketplace because although it is hardly infallible, it is not meaningless. Consider that a randomly stumbled-upon blogger spent no money creating the blog and faced no competition to reach his position.

    I, on the other hand, had to succeed where tens of thousands of others had failed — in getting published and in getting Rupert Murdoch to write me a fat check. There are a lot more people in this country making a good living as doctors or lawyers than as fiction writers. Mine is a very competitive business. Everybody and his horse wants to do it.

    To make a nice living in fiction you need talent, self-discipline, a capacity for work, a tolerance for risk, and a thick skin. It’s also nice if you have an instinct for the market and intellectual flexibility. How many on-line writers have all those things? Very few. If they did, let’s face it, they’d be published writers.

    I’ve written or co-authored 150 books. GONE was three times longer than anything I’d written before. It took me 6 months and I wrote it on spec. So for 6 months I worked pretty hard (by writer’s standards) and all the while didn’t know whether I was earning zero dollars an hour or hundreds of dollars an hour. I have no company medical or pension and I don’t get unemployment.

    The number of people willing to do that much work, with that much uncertainty, who can bring some talent and who have successfully anticipated a shifting market, who will risk it all to get the right deal, who know when to fight and when to surrender, and can keep doing it year after year is disappearingly small.

    All of that: the imprimatur of a Harper editor, Rupert’s money, the competitiveness of my business, the fact that I have managed to squeeze into bookstores, all of that is what makes me seem of potential interest to a reader. All of that is my Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and that’s what an online writer does not have.

  11. Eric Florack says:

    This is a long answer, so I apologize in advance —

    Please, don’t.
    I rather hoped and anticipated that it would be.

    Writing fiction however is my business so I treat it with a lot more seriousness. It has almost nothing to do with my mood. Moods are for hobbyists.

    Imagine a surgeon who ties knots to sew up an artery, but also on the weekend enjoys tying fishing lures. He’ll bring some skill to either task but he’s not likely to confuse the two.

    That’s certainly true in the two styles of writing that you cite, But I wonder a bit at your choice of words, mostly because it was a choice of words that my wife used earlier today, asking me if I was in the mood to crank out a column this morning. As it happened, I was, but was getting a little frustrated on source material.

    I tried to explain to her, unsuccessfully , that it wasn’t so much a matter of mood, as a matter of being the events -driven. The truth is try as I will, I’ve yet to determine how some of the professionals manage to crank out a column whether there’s something noteworthy to comment on, or not. I’ve managed to overcome that somewhat, by writing several columns on more non-events driven topics, such as general political principles, and using the better ones still ‘in the can’ during slower periods.

    Your site on blogspot is great reading, but being driven by your personal life, you can pretty much write to it or not at your whim.

    Fantasy, OTOH, certainly is not current events driven. in that, you not only don’t have the excuse of mood or whim, you also don’t have the excuse of being events -driven. You are quite correct it’s a different kind of writing, and one you’ve made plain is far more demanding, as I always thought it was.

    I guess the only point I’m making here, is one I’ve already made; it depends on what you’re writing about, and were you plan to be published.

    The problem with writing on-line is a lack of gatekeepers.

    For the vast majority, that’s very true.

    OTOH, I dare say that among political bloggers… and blog readers, for that matter, you will find that a lack of gatekeepers is regarded as a positive.

    There are, however, in the politcal writing realm those rare individuals who submit their writings to the sites like Pajamas Media, for example or American Thinker who actually have an editor in the chain.

    I bring that up, because I wonder if that satisfies in your mind the lack that you see.

    To make a nice living in fiction you need talent, self-discipline, a capacity for work, a tolerance for risk, and a thick skin. It’s also nice if you have an instinct for the market and intellectual flexibility. How many on-line writers have all those things? Very few. If they did, let’s face it, they’d be published writers.

    Again, in fiction, that’s very true, and I must say again that I admire/envy you the ability. But I wonder what field you’re talking about when you speak to what qualities online writers may or may not have. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not taking offense, I’m really trying to put this into a context. For all that I know, there may very well be a number of online writers of fiction that I am totally unaware of.

    The number of people willing to do that much work, with that much uncertainty, who can bring some talent and who have successfully anticipated a shifting market, who will risk it all to get the right deal, who know when to fight and when to surrender, and can keep doing it year after year is disappearingly small.

    Doubtless. And I wonder how much of that is what I commented on the other day ; that we have become such a risk averse society in the west. Have we totally so forgotten the lesson of the turtle who only makes progress forward when he sticks his neck out ?

    Apparently, it is a lesson you have not forgotten.

    My compliments.

  12. Eric:

    I should have made clear that all my remarks apply only to fiction. I’m afraid I was being parochial. And further, while I have some understanding of fiction, my more specific field of knowledge would be kidlit. And in terms of an area where I am deeply knowledgeable you’d have to narrow it even further to series.

    I know a great deal about series. (Created or co-created ten series, worked on a few more.) Less as we move away from that core competence.

    There are indeed fiction writers online. Lots, though they struggle to make themselves known.

  13. Eric Florack says:

    There are indeed fiction writers online. Lots, though they struggle to make themselves known.

    (grimace)
    I can well imagine they would. At least in terms of being event driven in ‘your’ writing, when you’re online, you have the advantage of Google/AV/Whatever drawing readers based on your having written to a particular event or concept along with of course their curiosity about a particular event and what others are saying about it. Other writers are of course helpful too, if you’re good enough to attract their attention and links.

    I can’t for the life of me imagine how that would apply in the world of fiction writing online. I can imagine that the effect in the world of , as you call it, kidlt, would be even more disconnected.

    And to that point, I wonder how much (positive) change can really be effected by the Internet in that field? Certainly, the net has affected the news cycle, and all of the riders on that particular horse, including political commentary. The worlds of fiction and Kidlit? I don’t see it, myself.

    I can certainly understand your point about the “everybody into the pool” model, so much the way of things in other forms of writing on the net, not working in those fields. That said, I wonder if the traditional way of things, with an editor and a publisher and literary agents, and the whole ball of wax , will ever make the transition to computer based media?

    All of that, I guess, was what I was alluding to in my original question.

    From your perspective, then, do you see kids literature making the transition to computer and online media?

    Of course, before you even comment, I will stipulate to the idea that these things are developing so fast that we can even envision half of the model that will exist in say five years. (Shrug)

  14. I not only see it happening, I’m hoping to make it happen.

    A book my wife and I wrote, the first book of the REMNANTS series was an early experiment in online books. We wrote to the publisher and said, “We know why we like this, but why do you like it?”

    There is a potential for fiction writers in all genres to reach past publishers directly to the audience. GONE sells for $22.95. I take 10% of that, so $2.30 a book.

    If I could bypass the publisher and sell an electronic version of the book directly to readers I might charge, $10 and keep $9 of that after expenses like editing.

    I’m no math whiz but $9 adds up a whole lot faster than $2.30.

    The disturbing thing is that this only really works for established authors. Say you’re Stephanie Meyer and you’re making a 10% royalty. (I imagine she’d doing a bit better than that.) Working the conventional route you sell a million books and earn $2,300,000. If you can self-publish digitally you can sell half as many book and still make twice the money.

    Now think of what that does to her publisher. If they sell a million Stephanie Meyer books they bring in 20 million in round numbers. A portion of that 20 million can then be risked to pay for a midlist or unknown author, right? Well, what happens to the publisher is Stephanie goes independent? And what happens to the downlist authors?

    The weird thing will be that the move to digital may strengthen established authors, hurt publishers, and hurt new authors.

    For those who don’t believe books will make the digital move, I have a true story. My son was 11 when he read the 600 plus pages of HUNGER: A GONE NOVEL pre-publication. He read it — yes, all 600 pages — on his iPhone.

  15. Anon says:

    I think it’s unclear whether or not it will ultimately hurt new authors. Ultimately, what is needed is some sort of screening mechanism that is effective. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the traditional publisher business model.

    We can loosely define “effective” by saying that the mechanism is effective if its rankings are similar to the rankings of the population that are willing and able to pay.

  16. Eric Florack says:

    The weird thing will be that the move to digital may strengthen established authors, hurt publishers, and hurt new authors.

    It strikes me that this is what happened in the music world as things went digital. Publishers had a tendency to stick to established artists more. (Again, we come back to risk aversion)

    Aside: I have around 200 books on my Palm Treo. (In text form books make a shockingly small data footprint. Examples; War and Peace comes to just over a megabyte, and the whole of the Tolkein Trilogy comes to around a meg and a half, and Stirling’s “Sea Of Time” trilogy slightly more than that.)

    Beats hell out of carrying the actual books, everywhere. Then again, they’re all established authors that I have, which goes to your point well, I think.