Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing for Clicks or Likes

In an era when writers are struggling to profit from their work, does writing for free still have a place?  ♦ 
There’s a new dynamic developing on the internet today. For decades, almost a century, the same establishment ruled, and the machinery of big publishing houses churned out the writing the vast majority of the population read. Small presses and self-publishing existed, but these were generally unprofitable for the author. Then, with the rise of the internet and Amazon, the old relationship of author, publisher, and bookstore was shattered. No longer did authors have to go through the same gatekeepers of a few publishing houses and a cadre of agents. Today, small presses are on the rise and often offer contests and open calls for submissions. Hundreds offer self-publishing services, and several big successes have taken away the stigma of bringing a passion project to the public yourself. Meanwhile, Amazon and other internet companies allow writers to self-publish e-books for free. The Martian became an overnight sensation through this method before being picked up by Penguin Random House for hard copy release.
   Though many Kindle books languish unread on virtual shelves despite years of hard work by their creators, the goal for many aspiring authors is an ultimate success story like Andy Weir’s. Others have found ways to make the most of Kindle Direct Publishing. One only has to Google the phrase “write an e-book” before the option of “in 7 days” appears. Right there on the search page, before you even click on a single link, are instructions from a writing services site on how to boost your e-book’s page count by using larger font and starting each chapter on a new page. There’s a blog which promises “Thirteen Steps to Write and Publish a Free EBook in Thirteen Hours” and e-books with titles like HOW TO WRITE AN EBOOK: In Less Than 7- 14 Days That Will Make You Money Forever, which sells on Amazon for $2.99 and seems to have followed its own recommended format for a quickly written “how-to” book. Sensational claims aside, what the rise of this self-pubbing cottage industry really suggests is that there’s a large contingent of emerging writers out there trying to figure out how to get their work noticed in a difficult and crowded market, and they’re especially having a tough time figuring out how to actually make money from their work.
   In fact, a resistance to paying for the written word at all has in recent times entered the public consciousness. On November 6, 2017, The Guardian published an article headlined “‘We’re told to be grateful we even have readers’: Pirated Ebooks Threaten the Future of Book Series” in which YA authors Maggie Stiefvater and Samantha Shannon discussed how widespread pirating of their books hurt sales and almost prevented them from continuing their series. The article quoted Shannon’s Twitter where she wrote about being shamed by fans for wanting to be paid for her art. There is an existing perception that art should be produced for its own sake and that anything else is selling out. Most established creators would wholeheartedly reject that idea. They need to eat after all. Of course, what they make could be produced part time while they work another job, and most start off that way, but it takes longer to build a career and prevents them from fully devoting themselves to what they love. There are seemingly more options now for artists to reach out to their audience for financial support –the same principle that applies to YouTube creators who monetize their videos and ask viewers to support them on Patreon so they can work on videos full-time—for the traditional writer, their ultimate goals (which sometimes take years to achieve) can be trickier to fund.
   Remember Andy Weir? The man whose self-published book made him rich and got a movie deal? In an interview from 2014 available in the back of The Martian’s paperback release and also on his Penguin Random House website, Weir was asked “How did you feel when your original, self-published version of THE MARTIAN became a phenomenon online? Were you expecting the overwhelmingly positive reception the book received?” In his response, Weir explains that the story was available for free for months on his website and that he only put it on Amazon, at the minimum price Amazon would allow, because some of his readers requested he do so to make it easier to download. He was surprised by the sudden burst in sales and the publishing and movie deals that came fast on its heels. In the interview, he still sounds bewildered at how the story he wrote around his hobby of planning hypothetical space missions became a bestseller, especially since it doesn’t seem he ever had the intent to sell it. Weir clearly knew how to put the book on Amazon and knew how to set a price, but he didn’t do so until someone else asked him to, and even then he did it as a convenience to them. So why did he write a book if he didn’t want to sell it but did want people to be able to read it?
   It’s been claimed that the longest work of fiction in the English language is a 4 million- words-long Super Smash Bros. Brawl fanfic called The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest. A Mexican-born college junior living in the US known only as “Christian” has spent years writing a massive fanfiction about the Nintendo characters in the Super Smash games. Another bestselling author whose self-published success made headlines in the last decade is E.L. James. Fifty Shades of Grey may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s no denying its popularity and influence. It was also originally written typed on James’s Blackberry as Twilight fanfiction. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Martian can be interpreted as success stories of authors who had settled on writing only as a hobby and were picked up by the major publishers, brought to a wide audience, and made a lot of money. Except part of the reason why they were picked up is because they were already being read by thousands, showing a broad audience for books in underrated genres, even though the books were initially offered for free to relatively small and specific online communities of like-minded fans and readers.
   So why do people write fanfiction when they could just as easily not? Because it has a built-in audience, it’s almost guaranteed that someone will read it and leave a like or a comment. But that built-in audience also takes away a key intent of work in a capitalist society—that it will turn a profit and allow the creator to live the lifestyle they desire. When the needs of rent and food and expenses are met by another occupation which the writer does not want to abandon (or imagines they never will be able to abandon) then the need to make money off writing lessens. Maybe they think it would cheapen the writing or negate the relaxation they get from writing as it converts a leisure activity into another job. So do authors only want their books to sell because it pays the bills, or because if they don’t, the publisher won’t continue to make their books available to be read? If money was no longer an issue, would people still write?
   My theory is that profit from writing is in some ways an indication that others have liked their work. Before booksellers could get reader reviews or be tweeted at by readers, sales were the only way to determine if a book was liked. The plus side was that this symbol of adoration could also liberate an author from a dull day job, fund a research trip, and on rare occasions allow the writer to live in the lap of luxury. There are a lot of reasons people want to make money, but money was also validation for the work. It was proof that they were being read and enjoyed. Today, free online content has a lower requirement of quality to pique interest and interaction; after all, it’s free. Perhaps it feels safer than the process of constant rejection that comes with selling a book. They can put it out there in the world and see what comes back. Andy Weir thought everyone who would read his book already had; he didn’t think anyone else would want to. (The trade paperback edition of The Martian stayed on The New York Times Best Seller list for seventy-six weeks, with twelve consecutive weeks at number one.)
   Not too many people question why people produce free online content. The presumption for most products is that it’s for ad space, or that it’s a free version meant to garner interest in a paid version. Still, they don’t wonder why anyone codes a free plug-in for Google Chrome or writes a novel and then just posts it on their blog. On one hand, it can be viewed as altruism, or on the other, a lack of confidence in their own talent. As the internet increasingly tries to monetize itself, and as American society continues to hold onto the dollar as the end-all-be-all, the question of writing for clicks and likes—and where it might lead—is a much more complex and interesting one than at first it might seem. And it might even turn out to be more profitable.
  • About the Author
    Caroline Forrey is currently a sophomore at Miami University majoring in Creative Writing. She enjoys spending long hours on Wikipedia researching random topics, reading, and overanalyzing TV shows. Oh, and writing.

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