Are Career Authors a Threatened Species?

Old typewriterLet’s be realistic. Things aren’t as easy as they once were for full-time novelists. Revenues are declining, but at the same time, there’s never been more people reading than ever before. How do we resolve this? Or maybe we don’t? The market is changing. It’s usually foolish to fight it: that’s seldom a long-term solution.

And really, that’s what I’m trying to work through. There’s no point as a new author, moaning about the “state of the industry”. This is pointless. It is what it is.

Does that mean making a living is solely out of book sales is dead in the water? No, there will always be success stories. There will always be people like Andy Weir (author of the excellent book The Martian) making a big dent out of nowhere, and the people with already long-established careers will continue to perform well. So they and others will do well, but I think that maybe when it comes to making a career solely out of novels, proportionally fewer will than we have seen in the past.

For most authors – or those who want to make a living out of writing books – I think it’s sensible to take an honest and open look at your skillset. It’s rewarding too.

Being a good writer is a really valuable talent as the knowledge economy grows to dominate everything in the coming years. Many writers will continue to adopt new skills and become journalists, copywriters, etc. and grow their business that way. In short, it’s much more likely that you can make a career out of writing, than making a living just as a writer of novels. Your novels will be a piece of the puzzle: maybe a little piece, maybe a lot. That will be down to luck, perspiration and determination.

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Paying for Journalism Online

wpid-Photo-4-Jan-2013-0940-PM.jpgIt’s been some time now since the fall of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Sully himself has moved back to a mainstream publication (this time the New York Magazine), and the world has moved on.

Andrew had an interesting idea. Continuing his blog as he had done on places like the Atlantic before, but on his own, allowing people to see a certain number of full-posts through a (leaky) paywall, but giving people full access for a single low yearly fee.

Alas, even Andrew Sullivan, with his huge blog following, couldn’t quite keep it going. For his own health, as much as anything else, he finally called it a day.

Does that mean his experiment failed? Does it mean that paying for online journalism just won’t work? I hope that’s not what people take out of his venture.

First of all, I’m just not sure people will pay to read a blog, that was mostly an aggregate of content from other sites. There might – and only might – be a viable platform for paying to read content, where there’s that direct link between the author and the reader.

The only truly viable platform that exclusively works like that right now is the humble book. Be it a “dead tree” version or an ebook. People, it seems, are still more than willing to pay to consume that written content.

You can say that people are still paying for newspapers and magazines too. Yes they are (though circulations are falling), but think about it, the cost of selling those publications almost never pays for the content. They all have adverts running in them. Today here in the UK, free papers like The Metro are actually (in an income/expenditure sense) among the most successful models right now. They make a lot of money, and don’t charge their consumers for that content.

However, that simple model isn’t working in the online world. Rewind a number of years back. Newspapers started getting websites. Journalists, keen to have their work  be seen by as many people as possible, convinced their bemused editors to let them post all their articles online. That content was available for free. But the value of the advertising (especially considering how clever those media-rich ads could be) was never really understood by the sales teams and editorial teams. Very quickly Google dominated that game, allowing advertisers pay pennies for ads whose equivalent in print would cost many pounds. Google was happy with this because they are working to scale. They can get tens of millions of customers and be quite happy. A modestly popular site that gets, say, 50,000 visitors a week will make a fraction of the revenue from advertising that a weekly magazine with a circulation of 50,000 would make from its ads.

So those appear to be the two main models that people concentrate on. However, I think there’s another model we dismiss at our peril.

Journalists (particularly older ones, like, say, Andrew Sullivan), really dislike “native ads”, sometimes called “sponsored content” or “advertorials”. These are articles usually made by the in-house editorial team, but used to promote a message by an advertiser. Some associate it with Buzzfeed (which does very well, btw), and the like. I don’t see why the concept, with a different tone, couldn’t work in other forms. I’m personally totally okay with that content, as are many of my fellow millennials.

I spoke to a load of people my age (and younger) about this. The response was fascinating. We often seem to be okay with advertorials, as long as they’re called “sponsor content” and is clearly labelled as such. We’re just as likely to read it (if it sounds interesting) as we are the rest of the content. We don’t like being deceived into thinking that an article is purely editorial rather than “sponsored content”, but apart from that, I think we’re okay with it. It’s just more content in the mix.

Unlike the Googlefication of banner ads, etc., sponsored content needs to be high-quality. It needs to be readable. For the consumer, it shouldn’t be in-your-face and offensive (like awful intrusive ads that block the content unless you find the ‘X’ to close it for example). And for the advertiser, it appears to actually have much higher conversion rates than an ad.

It’s scalable, but can’t be automated. A computer can’t automatically write a beautiful, artistic, engaging, clever article for a client. That takes good journalists and copywriters. Therefore, it can’t be made for a few cents. You need to spend real money, and get it out there.

I think that this kind of content can help pay for the other stuff, the content that’s unshackled from the burden of commercial pressures, while making it free to the consumer. It might be online journalism’s best hope for growth.

So I remain optimistic for the future of written journalism and content creation, and I see sponsor content – be it on blogs, news sites, Medium, etc. – as being one of the most interesting and practical ways of getting us there.

Imagine your favourite sites, clean, ad-free, fully-acessable and gratis, with sponsored content among the rest of the work. But paid for and sustainable.

So what do you think? Can sponsored content (done in the right way), be the digital shot-in-the-arm this business needs?

Fighting “Writer’s Block”

WritingThere’s a lot of comments, blogs, articles, interviews with authors, and all sorts of stuff online about “writer’s block”, and what it really means. In fact, there’s so much, it can stop you from writing as you procrastinate and use up as much time as possible reading about writing problems rather than, you know, writing.

To be frank, it’s not something I’ve had much trouble with these days. So when I had a really charming letter from an aspiring writer the other day, who asked me what I do to overcome writer’s block – ironically – I couldn’t think of what to say to her.

But I’ve had a bit of a think, partly because the email was really sweet (I won’t repeat it here, she asked if I don’t as it contained specifics about her work that basically I’m too lazy to edit out), and partly because it got me thinking about my view on this alleged creativity-draining problem. So in the end, I came up with a reply, which she kindly let me share with you here. I’ve re-written it quite a bit to suit a more generic writer rather than specific issues of a specific problem.

With the disclaimer that my advice might sound crude, or undermining of a creative process you may have, I’m afraid that I only have blunt things to say about “writer’s block”, and how it may be overcome. They might not be warm and comforting comments, but I think they have the advantage of being spot-on in most circumstances, for most people.

My cousin, rather like my grandfather before him, is a trucker. Long-haul, big-rig stuff. The money’s pretty good, and it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He passed the Heavy Good Vehicle driver’s tests, and he earns enough to support his young family. He’s also a really great guy and a loving father to two adorable children.

Sometimes, somewhat unsurprisingly for a truck-driver, his job requires him to get up very early in the morning and drive from one end of the country to the other.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to suppose that sometimes the last thing he wants to do in the whole world is get out of bed very early in the morning, leave his lovely wife-to-be and great kids sleeping at home, and head to the depot to start the working day.

But he does it all the same. He gets up, goes out in the cold and dark, does the job, and – one assumes – almost certainly gets a sense of satisfaction out of knowing he’s done a good job for a good days pay.

In other words, he doesn’t get “trucker’s block”. It’s a job. It’s a job he likes. With the early starts and other aspects, he doesn’t always like every part of it (who does in any job?) but he does what he needs to in those times, and he is all the better for it.

If you are writing your first novel for example, (that’s the case of the writer who emailed me recently through this site), and you feel you’re getting what some on the internet have told you might be “writer’s block”, think of it as “trucker’s block”. And then it suddenly sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

Yes, I know it’s disappointing that I don’t have some special, magic trick to share. But I do have that one tip. Call it “trucker’s block”. That’s my advice.

Because you might be writing for pleasure at the early stage of your endeavours, rather than the paycheck, it can be hard to carry on during the bits that aren’t as much fun. And that makes sense. Who wants to do a job they’re not enjoying if they don’t have to? My cousin wouldn’t get up at 4am to drive a lorry over to Whitstable from Stoke-on-Trent if he didn’t have to, and still got paid regardless.

And this is really the point. For the jobbing writer (of anything really, journalists, content-creators, copywriters, novelists, etc.), I’ve noticed that “writer’s block” is less of a phenomenon. Because like a trucker at four in the morning, you just have to get up and get on with it. It’s your job. If you really really hate everything about it, then why are you doing it? Seriously, go do something else and be happy. But if you don’t feel like it right now, when you booked yourself time to do it, I say force yourself to start anyway. After a while, the reflexes kick in, and at the end of the day or session, you feel pretty good about what you’ve done. Even if it’s mostly/partly junk and you’ll need to do something about it later. You did it, and that counts for something.

And here’s the odd thing that I think I’ve mentioned before. Sometimes when I get that feeling which some call “writer’s block”, it’s often because I’m really disliking what I’ve just written. Once again, instead of going “Ah, I’m not writing well today, I should leave it”, I force myself to carry on, because usually the next day, when I’m in a better frame of mind, I look at what I’ve written in that frustrated “blocked” period of time, and end up realising that I’m reading some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. Seriously.

Of course, your mileage may vary. This advice will help some, and annoy others. I’m sorry if you fall into the latter category. This isn’t a hard and fast rule for writing. I don’t believe that those exist.

It’s just that for me, there’s times when I don’t feel like writing something. But I don’t call that “writer’s block”, I call that “not wanting to write at the moment.” When I feel like that, I get on and do it anyway. Not to meet the deadline, not because of the paycheck, but because my cousin is a truck driver. And he has to get up and do his job too, so I don’t see why I’m any different.

Writing Apps

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Are you a writer?

What software do you use to write? It’s a question I’m asked a lot.

The truth – cliched and as obvious as it is – is that there’s not one single application that is the writer’s tool. Everyone writes differently, so everyone will find different tools work better for them.

Here’s some I use:

When I’m sitting by a computer, just trying to get some ideas down, I’m a big fan of OmmWriter. It’s a distraction-free writing tool that provides a sound-scape, inspiring backgrounds and encouraging clicking sounds as you type. There’s a few options, but it’s basically a text-editor and all the tools get out of the way when you start writing.

When I have a general idea of, say a novel I want to write, I use one of a number of iPad apps to “block out” the story. One I’m currently using quite a bit is Index Card, because of it’s integration with Scrivener (which I’ll talk more about in a moment). But Scrivener is supposedly releasing an iPad app in its own right that I’m looking forward to, so that might be my go-to app for planning a story in the future.

And that’s because when it comes to putting a novel or long-form written piece together, for my money, Scrivener is currently the best app I can find. I use the Mac version, so I can’t say anything about the Windows version (which I hear has fewer features) but it’s fast and nimble. Whether you are working on an empty new document, or one with thousands of documents, images, notes, and chapters making up a 250,000-word masterpiece, Scrivener remains incredibly responsive.

It’s cheap for what it is, and is feature-rich. But the real beauty of Scrivener is that you only need to learn the features you need, and you can discard the rest, or use them when you find a use for them. Not learning everything (and there is a lot to learn) doesn’t hamper your ability to get a lot out of this remarkable and well-thought-out app.

But that’s just me, your mileage my vary.

I say try everything out you can, and you’ll find a workflow that works. This “software experimentation” requires time and patience, but it’s worth investing that time as it could save you hours (or possibly months) of time later when you find yourself knee-deep in an epic project and only then realise you’d rather work in a different way. Get it right for you from the start, and you’ll avoid lots of headaches later. And I speak as someone who has made that mistake far too many times.

If you’re really inspired, a simple notepad and a text editor will do the trick. But using some of these tools allow the difficulty and mechanics of writing to get out of the way, leaving you with your ideas and the tale you want to tell.

Happy writing and good luck!

Copywriting and Literary Art

When is writing a job, and when is it art?

On the highly engaging ‘Anecdotal Evidence’ blog, a really interesting interview transcript, from a talk by poet (and associate creative director) L.E. Sissman from January 1972. Sissman looks at what is both similar and different about writing poety and creative copy:

Copywriting should always be precise, true, purposely literal. Poetry should always be ambiguous—i.e., capable of being read different ways at different levels. You work for compression but you’re building a skyscraper on your little plot. Obviously, I don’t mean copywriting should be devoid of humor, nuance, or colloquialism, but I think it ought to give the reader as honest an account of the good points of the product or service as possible, and without equivocation or weaseling …

Copywriting is evanescent and poetry is, the poet hopes like hell, perduring, but there are a lot of similarities otherwise. Copywriting teaches you to say exactly what you mean in the fewest possible words the first time around and under pressure of time [as does journalism]. This is a valuable lesson for the poet.

It’s worth reading in full.