Death of pro writing has been greatly exaggerated

31 Jul

Does anyone else hear violins playing?

If you haven’t read an unmitigated whine-fest recently, check out this story from The Globe and Mail last week in which a couple of writers complain about the internet. British writer Ewan Morrison is particularly impassioned about how the internet’s culture-of-free is devaluing the art, which will ultimately result in “no more professional writers in the future.”

Predatory pricing from Amazon, self-publishing, amateurs who are willing to work for little or nothing, ebook piracy, the Huffington Post – all of these phenomena are conspiring to bring down the publishing and journalism industries, to the point where it’s hard to make a living as a writer anymore. Or so the complainers say.

Oh please. What utter bunk.

Yes, it’s true that freelance rates haven’t gone up in ages and yes it’s true that book advances are falling, but to paraphrase one great writer, it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times – both for established and up-and-coming writers.

Not only are the biggest of the big – the likes of J.K. Rowling – finding it more lucrative to go into business for themselves, there has also never been more opportunity for those just starting out thanks to websites hungry for content. Just about every site out there is looking for contributions, which means there are plenty of writing gigs available for budding writers of every stripe. Those sites, some of them “content farms,” may not pay well if anything at all, but they do provide opportunities for writers to practice their craft, get exposure and perhaps even build a name for themselves.

Nearly 20 years ago, I remember sitting down to my first day of first-year reporting class at journalism school, only to hear the professor tell us that if we wanted a job when we graduated, we’d have to move to Whitehorse. That’s how rare opportunities were. Now, Whitehorse is a nice place (in the summer), but it sure looks like today’s opportunities are considerably better and more numerous, aren’t they?

Those opportunities translate into competition and meritocracy, where the cream – something the “culture creating” Morrison clearly considers himself – will inevitably rise to the top. That means young writers will have to work long and hard, sometimes for little pay, to make it. You know, sort of like how every single currently established writer did it in the good ol’ days before that blasted internet came along.

The difference this time is that the pay may not come from big institutions, such as publishers or newspapers. Proclamations of the imminent death of professional writing are therefore actually single-minded and Malthusian in their logic, because they don’t take this into account.

Simply put, we’re at a stage where income sources for writing are profoundly changing. Writing may be becoming a sort of loss leader, where it’s an advertisement for the writer, who then makes money through public speaking engagements, consultancy jobs and so on. And while Kickstarter has taken some knocks lately as a place where scams proliferate, some have rightly observed that crowd-sourced funding may indeed play a big future role in the funding of artistic endeavours. Writers who aren’t exploring these options and are instead just bemoaning that their traditional sources of income are simply either lazy or whiny.

There may be a proliferation of amateurish content out there, but Malthusians like Morrison forget to take two further things into account: amateurs will only produce for free or little pay for only so long before they throw in the towel, and secondly, there will always be demand for quality writing. The only thing that’s dying is the traditional ways of funding that quality.


Posted by on July 31, 2012 in books


3 responses to “Death of pro writing has been greatly exaggerated

  1. James Plotkin (@J_Plotkin)

    July 31, 2012 at 12:56 pm


    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Being someone who did not go to journalism school but fancies himself a writer, I agree that the Internet has- on balance- created, not destroyed opportunities. It seems like Morrison et al. are stuck in the ivory tower and can’t stand the site of plebs like me putting out content.

    In my view, your argument applies equally to the music business (the main difference being that the ivory tower is represented for the most part by record labels and not the artists themselves).

    You have to be a real elitist jerk to think that the advent of blogging, tweeting etc. are a sign of the beginning of the end of professional journalism. In fact, you would have to be an elitist jerk to suggest that those things are even a net loss for the profession.

    I think we’ll find (over the next little while) that some amateurs are capable of making great contributions to the field of journalism- so long as contribution entails putting out good writing for an audience that cares. I hope to one day count myself among those ranks.

    Great article. It was a breath of fresh air to hear a professional journalist fight the purist camp.

    • petenowak2000

      July 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks James. It was hard to read that original article without tasting the elitism that it was dripping with. ; )

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